Missouri currently has several marijuana legalization proposals in the works and all contain provisions to expunge nonviolent cannabis offenses from criminal records.

Legal Missouri, Cannabis Patient Network and Fair Access Missouri are all gathering signatures from registered voters at the moment in order to qualify their legalization proposals for the state ballot in November. Meanwhile, Rep. Shamed Dogan (R) recently filed legislation to put a marijuana legalization on the ballot as well, with another Republican lawmaker reportedly also considering such a move.

The various proposals take different approaches towards expungement but all involve an amendment of the Missouri Constitution, and legal experts fear this could end up causing more harm than good.

“My concern is we put something in the Constitution of the State of Missouri that has this level of minutiae, some of which may not be possible,” said Ellen Suni, who serves as dean of the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) School of Law and is the director of the law school’s expungement clinic.

Legal Missouri wants all nonviolent marijuana offenses to be automatically expunged but seeks to prescribe set timelines and expungement processes into the constitution. According to Suni, this could backfire due to the complexity of Missouri’s existing cannabis laws and the absence of digitized criminal records.

“Then the next time somebody mentions automated expungement, it’s ‘been there, done that. It doesn’t work,’” she said.

Under Legal Missouri’s proposal, automatic expungements would be paid for through fees and taxes collected from the adult-use cannabis industry, but those serving time for low-level marijuana possession would still need to petition the courts for early release, while those in jail for possessing more than three pounds would have to see out their sentence.

Fair Access Missouri’s proposal, on the other hand, would require all those with marijuana-related offenses seeking expungement to file a petition at a cost of $100.

“Automatic expungements are notable for taking a long time to implement,” said Eric McSwain, campaign manager for Fair Access Missouri. “And in the case of Legal Missouri 2022, they’re actually going to have to wait for tax revenues to start to be generated in order for those automatic expungements to begin to take place.”

The proposals put forward by Cannabis Patient Network and Dogan go a step further than those of Legal Missouri and Fair Access Missouri. Each would compel Missouri’s courts to expunge all nonviolent marijuana offenses from civil and criminal records, while those serving time, on parole or on probation would be released or no longer under supervision.

Whichever proposal qualifies and potentially wins the vote, the measure is going to have a hard time achieving its expungement objectives.

Only 125 people managed to expunge their criminal record in Missouri in 2019. The process typically requires the help of a lawyer and can quickly run into several thousand dollars with no guarantee of success due, in part, to the lack of digital records in many municipalities.

St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell wants these fees to be waived and to see more streamlined expungement processes in place through comprehensive legislation before a flood of marijuana-related requests arrive.

“Any act that would mandate the expungement of certain records to remove the individual cost and burden from petitioners would be a welcome change,” Bell said. “It’s currently $250 to petition to have a record expunged, and it’s not always even successful.”

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