Columns, Opinion

Shehata: Marijuana legalization must include expansive expungement policy

The legalization of marijuana in states across the country has brought about economic success to those working in the industry and for those communities that are home to marijuana businesses. However, countless Americans remain in jail while the general public gets to consume and profit off of the same drug that thousands were arrested for. 

When marijuana is legalized in a state, some of the first questions people ask are about taxes, pricing and licensing. But what many people forget about is that tens of thousands of Americans are currently serving time in overcrowded prisons for non-violent marijuana possession. 

Marijuana is currently medicinally legal in 22 states and recreationally legal in 11 states and Washington, D.C. and marijuana sales generate millions of dollars in tax revenue in legal states. Oftentimes, it’s corporations profiting off of recreational cannabis, not individual Americans. 

Meanwhile, millions of Americans carry criminal records and are serving prison sentences for possession of marijuana, which can severely limit their employment opportunities after they are released. It is a gross injustice to allow corporations to make millions in a recently legalized industry when so many Americans have been stripped of their basic freedoms just for carrying a joint. 

Many prisoners currently serving time for marijuana have no prior criminal record. This is shocking, as other violent crimes such as sexual assault often go unprosecuted or are given lenient sentences. The use of marijuana has been demonized in American culture and many believe it is only the scum of the population consuming it. 

Drug enforcement and sentencing has also disproportionately affected minority communities. One group that has been heavily affected by the government’s harsh war on drugs is African Americans. The long sentences for drug crimes during the war on drugs ravaged African American communities, leaving many families torn apart by the prison system.

State governments have a duty to the people they govern to reexamine non-violent marijuana cases and determine whether prisoners with non-violent marijuana charges should have their sentences commuted and their records cleared. The overpopulation of the prison system in America and the economic devastation caused by the war on drugs is the responsibility of state governments to rectify. 

In California, San Diego and San Francisco are taking action to reconsider and potentially seal thousands of felony and misdemeanor marijuana cases to help people whose lives have been negatively affected by marijuana convictions. 

Criminal records should not punish individuals after marijuana has been legalized.  

By reexamining these cases, city and state officials would be able to refocus legalization efforts in a way that benefits Americans that have faced the harsh effects of the war on drugs and allows them to build businesses that can not only help individuals, but revitalize communities. 

These practices should be common place; chasing profit before freedom is un-American. The legalization of marijuana provides state governments with the opportunity to decrease prison populations and rectify the damage done by the war on drugs. Commuting sentences and clearing records should be an integral part of marijuana legalization in states across the nation. 

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