Virginia is not only legalizing weed, it’s making a sweeping move to purge past drug records. Will Oklahoma ever do the same thing?
The Commonwealth of Virginia is now planning to do more than just become the first state in the South to authorize recreational cannabis. Lawmakers there are being praised by criminal-justice reformers for proposing a further step.
An “ambitious” and “transformative” proposal by Virginia lawmakers would also automatically expunge criminal records stemming from past cannabis offenses for simple possession and possession with the intent to distribute.
Like the cannabis-legalization bill, the expungement effort has passed both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly and is expected to receive the signature of the governor.
By contrast, Oklahoma chose not to automatically expunge past cannabis felonies for simple drug possession and possession with intent when it first reclassified certain drug felonies down to far less-serious misdemeanors in 2016 and then authorized medical marijuana in 2018.
Oklahoma at least in the past has made it possible to expunge criminal records where Virginia has not or has greatly restricted eligibility. Virginia is now recognizing in a way Oklahoma has not that past criminal records can mean a life sentence of social and economic barriers that last long after the sentence itself is completed.
Felons of any kind face restrictions on housing, bank loans, student loans and university admissions, better-quality jobs, and more. While Oklahoma has procedures in place for expunging past drug felonies, it doesn’t occur automatically.
The process is also highly complicated and can be costly. Although it’s technically possible to pursue an expungement on your own, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation urges on its Web site that you hire an attorney to navigate the process:
“There are specific paperwork, notice, and legal requirements necessary in order to successfully petition for an expungement of your arrest records. The OSBI strongly suggests you get a lawyer to advise you of the proper actions to take. If you decide to represent yourself, the court will hold you to the same standards for knowing and following the applicable law as it would an attorney.”
One of my side hustles is writing online legal explainers for an attorney in Tulsa who specializes in expungements among other things. In the past, I’ve tried to find out for his Web site just how many people have been handed cannabis felonies from Oklahoma for simple possession and possession with intent. I’ve never seen anyone report the number and haven’t been able to find it myself. I’ve only seen the Oklahoma Policy Institute say that at least 60,000 people have been given onerous felonies for simple drug possession.
Meanwhile, Virginia is distinguishing itself from Oklahoma in other ways. Under their proposal, you would still be eligible for expungement even if you owed outstanding court fees and fines tied to your offense. To have your drug record or any criminal record expunged means simply that it will be withheld from public view and not appear in official background searches.
The criminal justice think tank Collateral Consequences Resource Center says that while the expungement achievement in Virginia is monumental, getting to agreement was an uphill battle:
“Years of relentless advocacy from people impacted by the sordid state of Virginia’s criminal and juvenile legal systems finally moved Virginia to act, as well as a constellation of other factors: the global pandemic, the killing of George Floyd, sustained protests of the police in the capital city of Richmond, a new Democratic majority in the General Assembly, and a governor eager to move on racial-justice issues, because of an embarrassing blackface scandal. … Because of differing approaches taken by the Virginia House and Senate on expungement reform, however, the lifelong consequences of a criminal record that follow from racially disparate contact with the criminal-legal system threatened to remain unaddressed.”
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