Marijuana Pardons and Expungements: By the Numbers

Introduction

On October 7, 2022, President Joe Biden became the first POTUS to issue mass pardons to those with low-level, federal marijuana possession convictions. In a prepared statement, the President said: “Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit. Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities.”

To “right these wrongs,” POTUS declared that all US citizens with a criminal record for the “federal offense of possession of marijuana” would receive a Presidential pardon. According to an analysis by the U.S. Sentencing Commission of federal arrest data dating back to 1992, the President’s directive provides forgiveness to an estimated 6,557 citizens.

While the President’s historic action garnered worldwide attention, he is not the only elected official to issue mass pardons to those with past marijuana convictions. Governors and other elected officials in several states have taken similar actions in recent years.

State-level Pardons

In June 2018, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, in coordination with the state Board of Pardons, initiated efforts to issue blanket pardons to an estimated 15,000 people previously convicted of offenses involving the possession of up to one ounce of cannabis.

In January 2019, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee moved to grant pardons to an estimated 3,500 people with past criminal misdemeanor marijuana-related convictions.

In December 2019, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued 11,017 pardons to those with low-level marijuana convictions. 

In January 2020, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas announced his intention to pardon some 8,000 city residents with minor marijuana convictions.

In January 2022, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis granted more than 1,300 pardons to those previously convicted for activities involving the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana.

In April 2022, the mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, announced that he had pardoned over 15,000 city residents with low-level marijuana convictions. Mayor Randall Woodfin further announced that he would continue issuing pardons to anyone in the city convicted of misdemeanor marijuana possession charges in municipal court. “I did it because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. Later in the year, while testifying before Congress in November, the Mayor indicated that he had granted pardon relief to some 23,000 residents with cannabis convictions on their records.

In October 2022, Pennsylvania’s Governor announced that the Board of Pardons would begin accepting applications for those seeking to have their marijuana possession convictions expunged. Over 200 Pennsylvania eventually received pardons under the program. The Governor separately issued another 400 estimated pardons to those with marijuana-related convictions.

In November 2022, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced her intent to pardon over 45,000 Oregonians with low-level cannabis convictions.

Other state Governors, including North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, have also issued marijuana-specific pardons during their tenures.  

State-Level Expungements

While pardons provide a level of forgiveness for past crimes, these are not the same as expungements – which seal past convictions from public view. To facilitate the latter, lawmakers in many states in recent years have enacted laws providing explicit pathways to expunge the records of those with low-level marijuana convictions. In some cases, those eligible for expungement relief are not required to take any action. Instead, state officials automatically review past records and notify those who meet the state’s criteria for expungement. In other cases, state law requires those seeking to have their records expunged to petition the courts in order to have their records reviewed and vacated.

Predictably, states that have automated the review and expungement process have seen a massive uptick in the processing of marijuana-related expungements. 

For instance, California officials have cleared an estimated 200,000 marijuana-related convictions. Governor Gavin Newsom signed additional legislation in 2022 expanding the pool of past offenders who will be provided expungement relief. The new law is expected to provide relief to an additional 34,000 Californians. 

In Illinois, state officials in 2020 announced that they had reviewed and expunged the records of an estimated 500,000 residents with low-level cannabis-related criminal records. In addition, lawmakers in 2022 approved legislation amending state law so that the courts can no longer deny petitioners’ requests to have their criminal records expunged solely because of a marijuana drug test failure.

In New Jersey, representatives with the state Judiciary announced in 2021 that they had either dismissed or vacated an estimated 362,000 marijuana cases and/or convictions. Officials estimated that another 150,000 would also be eligible for future expungement relief. 

Also, in 2021, officials with the New York State Office of Cannabis Management announced that they had sealed nearly 200,000 marijuana-related criminal convictions and were in the process of expunging several hundred thousand more. For decades, New York State — and New York City specifically — led the nation in the criminal prosecution of low-level marijuana offenders.

In Louisiana, city officials in New Orleans enacted legislation clearing the criminal records of anyone convicted since 2010 of a low-level marijuana possession offense. About 10,000 residents were anticipated to receive legal relief under the policy. City officials in Cleveland, Ohio also announced steps to proactively assist residents in filing to have their criminal records expunged. 

Officials in Virginia also announced in 2021 that they had sealed some 330,000 low-level marijuana possession convictions and another 64,000 misdemeanor distribution convictions.

More recently, in Arizona, several thousand marijuana-related convictions have been expunged. Instructions for how eligible parties can petition to have their records sealed are available from the AZCourts.gov website

In January 2023, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont announced that state officials had expunged the record of an estimated 43,000 residents with prior cannabis-related convictions. Also that month, Missouri lawmakers announced that over 3,500 residents had also had their marijuana-related convictions vacated.

In total, two-dozen states have enacted legislation expediting and facilitating the expungement of marijuana-related criminal convictions. 

Public support for these efforts is high. According to national polling compiled in November 2022 by the group Data for Progress, 74 percent of likely voters support expunging marijuana-related convictions from the criminal records of non-violent offenders. This includes majority support from Democrats, Independents, and Republicans. Other national surveys have also reported majority support for this policy.