A court ruling from the highest judicial authority in Massachusetts could clear the way for thousands of criminal record expungements for certain marijuana-related offenses.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts delivered a unanimous opinion in the case of Commonwealth v. K.W. that ensures judges only have limited recourse to deny petitioners requests to have cannabis-related convictions cleared from their criminal records.

The ruling backs up a 2018 law that included provisions to expunge the criminal records of individuals with certain cannabis-related offenses that were now legal under Massachusetts’ 2016 marijuana legalization law. In the Court’s opinion, the justices argued the 2018 law was intended to ensure a “strong presumption in favor of expungement for petitioners” so long as they meet the requirements.

As such, the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling overturns that of a municipal court judge who rejected an expungement request for a nonviolent cannabis conviction on the basis that doing so would not be in the best interest of justice.”

“If no substantial countervailing concern is raised, judges must grant the petition for expungement,” reads the conclusion of the Massachusetts Supreme Court justices.

Many more individuals have had their request for expungement refused as well. The Massachusetts Probation Service reported that less than a fifth of the requests submitted for cannabis-related expungement of criminal records were approved by justices so far in 2022. Applicants were either deemed ineligible or had their requests refused by the courts.

Attorney Pauline Quiron represented the case in favor of facilitating expungements and welcomed the court’s ruling as one that would help people remove convictions from their criminal records for offenses that are now legal.

“It’s a very detailed and thoughtful decision that is going to help a lot of people,” she said. “It will make the process of expungement much clearer and easier.”

NORML’s deputy director Paul Armentano said it is crucial the courts do all they can to help people with marijuana-related convictions clear them from their records.

“Tens of thousands of Americans unduly carry the burden and stigmatization of a past conviction for behavior that most Americans, and a growing number of states, no longer consider to be a crime,” he said. “Our sense of justice and our principles of fairness demand that public officials and the courts move swiftly to right the past wrongs of cannabis prohibition and criminalization.”

To this end, legislatures in 21 states have enacted legislation to facilitate the expungement of cannabis-related criminal records in recent years. In total, more than two million people with prior marijuana convictions have now had their records expunged or sealed from view.

Furthermore, the governors of Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, and Washington have issued around 30,000 pardons to individuals with low-level cannabis convictions since legalizing recreational marijuana.

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