Like most people with a felony on their criminal record, 27-year-old Ivan has run into some roadblocks when it comes to things like jobs and housing. When Ivan was 19, he told VICE, he was the designated driver shuttling a group of friends around on New Year’s Eve when the car was pulled over.
Ivan, whose last name is not being used because he fears encountering further difficulties over his criminal record, said he was “done kind of dirty,” slapped with charges like kidnapping because some of his friends in the car were underage. As part of a plea deal, Ivan agreed to a felony charge of delivering marijuana even though he maintains that he wasn’t selling or delivering it. For nearly all of his adult life, Ivan, said, his felony has held him back—which is why he rented a car and drove nearly two hours to Portland from Eugene to attend a January expungement clinic hosted by the Oregon Cannabis Association.
“It was difficult having a felony trying to get a house and a job and stuff,” Ivan said. “I’d have to work jobs like Taco Bell when I had the experience for higher-qualifying jobs. I’d even had job offers where at the end, you know, they’d say all right we need a background check and a piss test—and when I’d inform them of what was on the background check, they would have to retract the offer for insurance reasons.”
Ivan told VICE that his three years of work at a warehouse, including a stint as a supervisor, were essentially useless when it came to finding a similar job. “It didn't matter if it was a large company such as UPS, Pepsi, Anheuser-Busch, or even the reputable local construction and labor companies that paid a few dollars above minimum wage, my skills couldn't outshine a marijuana felony,” he said.
One of the arguments for cannabis legalization has been about the effects of arrests on nonviolent offenders. Black and brown people, in particular, have been disproportionately affected by marijuana arrests, according to multiple studies before and after legalization; to take just one example, Black Americans were nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, according to a 2013 ACLU report. So in states like Oregon where pot is available for sale to anyone over the age of 21, it seems bizarre that countless people still carry marijuana records, which can prevent people from getting a job or being approved for housing. That’s because when Oregon legalized recreational marijuana in 2015, the state failed to do something that legalization advocates have said would help level the playing field for people with marijuana arrest records: enact automatic expungement.
Expungement, or clearing your record, for a weed crime in Oregon is possible, but it takes a great deal of work. At the Portland clinic Ivan attended, attorneys from the group Metropolitan Public Defender consulted with people looking to have cannabis-related criminal charges removed from their records. In a couple of smaller offices along the windows, a job fair of sorts took place simultaneously, with interviews conducted on the spot by cannabis staffing agency Greenforce and by Groundworks, a parent company of local weed mega-brands like Farma and Electric Lettuce. A professional headshot station took over one of the small offices, to help applicants seeking weed jobs develop their personal brand.
Ivan skipped the job part; cannabis turned out to be one of the few areas he wasn’t locked out of for being a felon. “I ended up getting a job in the industry within the last year,” he said. “I had to pass a background check, but since it was only a marijuana conviction I was able to get the job.”
Combination expungement-job fairs are popping up around the country as the twin efforts to legalize medical and/or recreational weed expand. In September, the National Diversity and Inclusion Cannabis Alliance (NDICA) partnered with a local cannabis business in Chicago to help locals clear past records while also offering introductions to industry recruiters, as well as help with things like housing assistance and voter registration. When Illinois passed a 2019 law legalizing recreational pot, it was paired with an automatic expungement policy for anyone who had been arrested for carrying less than 30 grams of marijuana. Those pardons began in earnest on January 1, when Illinois governor JB Pritzker announced more than 11,000 records would be cleared to start. For those whose records carried convictions involving 30-500 grams, a slightly more arduous expungement application is needed.
NDICA founder Bonita Money told VICE that even with Illinois’s automatic expungement policy there are complicating factors. To start, someone with a felony marijuana conviction cannot legally work in the state’s cannabis industry. Then the process itself requires involving “[several] different agencies to get it approved, the first one being the state police,” Money said. Under the new Illinois law, a cannabis record must pass through five layers of bureaucracy before being expunged. It’s not always a hands-on process, but can take time either way. The multiple steps and fees, Money said, can create a barrier. She estimated that about 60 percent of the people she helped apply for expungement in Chicago never finished filing their paperwork—in part because they can’t afford to pay the court fees needed.
In short, there are tons of barriers even when expungement is woven into marijuana legalization. But when it does work, Money said, it can transform. An October CNN documentary short spotlighted Money’s mentee Lorenze, a 37-year-old man who spent most of his adult life on L.A.’s Skid Row due to marijuana convictions at age 18. After Money helped get Lorenze’s eight convictions expunged, he was able to get housing and a job that he said pays his first-ever living wage.
NDICA runs expungement clinics twice a month in Los Angeles and works with the probation office there on job training and internships both in the cannabis industry and elsewhere. The Chicago clinic took place during 2019’s National Expungement Week when similar events hit more than 30 cities around the country. In some states, like Mississippi, marijuana has yet to be legalized, so the clinics focused purely on record-clearing and social services. But in Washington, D.C., expungement week events included résumé writing workshops, job training, and other career re-entry services.
Juhi Aggarwal of the community law division at Metropolitan Public Defender was among the handful of attorneys helping people start the journey to expungement at the Portland clinic. She explained how complex the process of applying for expungement is, and said the clinic represented only “the very first step” of what can take months—or even years.
“I met with someone who had convictions from the 1990s. But because they had gotten a DUI in the last 10 years, that means they can’t expunge those older cases until the DUI is 10 years old,” said Aggarwal. In Oregon, the law says a decade must pass with no convictions—even traffic offenses—before you can apply to have any kind of criminal charges expunged. You also have to have paid any outstanding court fines and fees, even if they are unrelated to the record being expunged.
And then high court fees can be a barrier for people who are often stuck working low-paying jobs because of a criminal record. “In Louisiana, the filing fees add up to $600, so nobody gets expungements there.” That’s why groups like NDICA and the Oregon Cannabis Association partner with public defenders; people who can’t afford to cover court filing fees definitely can’t afford to hire attorneys and may not realize that fee waivers are available.
At the Portland clinic, Aggarwal and other lawyers helped determine if people’s records were eligible for expungement, filled out paperwork for motions and fee waivers, and inked fingerprint cards. “At best,” said Aggarwal, “this is just day one.”