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Justice Advocates Call For More Relief After Maryland Governor Pardons Thousands


Restorative justice advocates in Maryland are calling on Democratic Governor Wes Moore to take additional steps to provide relief to those with marijuana-related convictions, only days after the governor announced he was pardoning thousands. Moore signed an executive order on Monday that issued a mass pardon for approximately 175,000 weed-related convictions, a move that affected the records of about 100,000 individuals.

“Maryland made history when we legalized cannabis by referendum. But we cannot celebrate the benefits of legalization while forgetting the consequences of criminalization. No Marylander should face barriers to housing, employment, or education based on convictions for conduct that is no longer illegal,” Moore said when he announced the pardons on Monday. “Today, we take a big step forward toward ensuring equal justice for all. But this won’t be our last effort. We must continue to move in partnership to build a state and society that is more equitable, more just, and leaves no one behind.”

With the governor’s action this week, Maryland joins a growing number of states that have issued thousands of pardons to absolve convictions for cannabis-related offenses, particularly as laws prohibiting marijuana are relaxed across the country. A similar move was made at the federal level, with President Joseph Biden becoming the first president to issue a mass pardon for marijuana crimes in October 2022. The president expanded his order in December 2023 with a pardon that covered thousands more federal marijuana convictions.

According to Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), approximately 2 million people have had a cannabis-related conviction pardoned or expunged in recent years, The Washington Post reported on Wednesday.

Supporters of the mass pardons note that a criminal conviction, even for a minor offense, can have long-lasting repercussions. In an interview with NPR, Moore acknowledged the difficulties faced by those with a criminal record while noting the scope of his executive order.

“The barriers to everything from employment to education to the ability to buy a home and to be able to start gaining wealth for your family, all of these things are being blocked,” Moore told NPR. “By doing what is the largest state misdemeanor cannabis pardon in the history of this country, essentially what it’s doing is, we want to make second chances actually mean something.”

Is a Pardon Enough?

Some justice advocates, however, say the pardons announced this week do not go far enough to ease the harm of a criminal conviction and are calling for records to be expunged instead. In Maryland, a pardoned conviction still appears on an individual’s criminal record with a notation that the offense has been forgiven. Colleen Chien, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, said that research shows that any criminal record, even for only an arrest, can make employers less likely to contact a job candidate for an interview.

“A record, whether or not it’s been pardoned, whether or not it’s been convicted, is often enough,” said Chien. “And so if the governor wants to sort of ensure that this is policy, that there is as much force behind it as possible, he would probably work with the legislature to also try to turn it from a pardon to some sort of shielding, a sealing, or an expungement.”

Cynthia W. Roseberry, director of policy and government affairs focused on justice issues for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the pardons for minor cannabis convictions in Maryland and some other states are a “good first step, but it is a small step” to address what she characterized as systemic racial inequities in the nation’s criminal justice system.

“This really is a signal that elected officials are beginning to listen to the people,” Roseberry told The Washington Post. “The people want folks to do more, and I think elected officials have to be bold enough to follow the people in that way.”

The Clean Slate Initiative is a campaign supporting legislation for the automated clearing of criminal records known as clean slate laws. Leaders of the initiative estimate that 300,000 people in Maryland have convictions for marijuana-related offenses and other crimes that are eligible for expungement that the state has not yet cleared.

“Pardons and other efforts to reduce the consequences of having a record are important,” Sheena Meade, CEO of the Clean Slate Initiative, told NPR in an email. “However, automatic record clearance for people who meet the requirements is the best way to ensure that a past mistake does not prevent people from having meaningful access to employment, housing, education, and other opportunities.”

Sarah Gersten, executive director of the Last Prisoner Project (LPP), a nonprofit working to secure the release of all cannabis prisoners, noted that legal technicalities in Maryland and some other states make it difficult to pardon eligible convictions if there are other ineligible charges attached to the case. Because of this, Moore also issued pardons for convictions for marijuana paraphernalia to help expedite the process.

“Though the pardons will not achieve full restorative justice for Marylanders impacted by prohibition, it is historic that a first-term governor is exercising his clemency power in such an expansive way,” Gersten said in an email to High Times. “LPP was able to provide technical assistance to the Governor’s office that ensured these pardons went beyond just simple possession and actually worked to expand the pool of eligible expungement recipients from the legalization bill that passed a year ago. 

“Additionally, as the Governor himself stated, this is simply the first step in the course of broader action that needs to occur in Maryland,” she added. “We look forward to continuing to work alongside the governor to further expand the scope of expungement and to commute the sentences of those still incarcerated for cannabis in the state.”

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