Mass. Gov. Announces Pardon Plan For Marijuana Possession

By Sam Reisman | March 13, 2024, 7:18 PM EDT ·

Massachusetts Gov. Maura T. Healey has announced plans for sweeping pardons of misdemeanor cannabis possession convictions, following the directive of President Joe Biden, who urged state executives to follow his lead in pardoning low-level marijuana offenses.

The Democratic governor said on March 13 that her pardons would apply to any adult convictions in Massachusetts state court for simple possession of marijuana that occurred before Wednesday. While the pardons could affect hundreds of thousands, the governor said, they would not be extended to more serious marijuana offenses, such as trafficking or driving under the influence.

"Nobody should face barriers to getting a job, housing or an education because of an old misdemeanor marijuana conviction that they would not be charged for today," Healey said. "We're taking this nation-leading action as part of our commitment to using the clemency process to advance fairness and equity in our criminal justice system."

The pardons would become effective if the state Governor's Council approves Healey's decision. Massachusetts legalized cannabis for adult nonmedical use via a ballot initiative in November 2016.

The pardons would not automatically lead to the sealing or expungement of criminal records, but the governor's office said those affected by the pardons will have an opportunity to petition for record sealing.

Healey's announcement received support from the leaders of the Democrat-dominated state Legislature, the Massachusetts General Court, as well as a swath of civil rights advocates, state prosecutors and law enforcement entities.

"The legislature has worked hard to expand and expedite expungement, and I am elated that the Healey-Driscoll Administration is moving to pardon misdemeanor cannabis convictions," said Senate President Karen E. Spilka, D-Ashland, in a statement. "This is the right thing to do."

House Speaker Ronald J. Mariano, D-Quincy, said that the announcement was "consistent with the Legislature's intent during the passage of the 2018 criminal justice reform law, which was updated in 2022 when the Legislature passed further cannabis reforms, that allowed residents to seek expungements for convictions that are no longer crimes following voter-approved reforms."

Healey specifically cited Biden's recent actions and directive in her statement on Wednesday, referencing pardons the president granted in October 2022 and December 2023 for federal crimes of simple marijuana use and possession. Since the vast majority of marijuana enforcement occurs at the state level, Biden encouraged governors to make similar moves.

In an acknowledgment of the limits of federal executive power, Biden in both 2022 and 2023 urged state governors to follow his lead. After the initial batch of pardons, some Democratic governors, in Connecticut and Oregon, did so.

Others rejected the call, such as Asa Hutchinson, the Republican then-governor of Arkansas, who at the time accused Biden of having "adopted all the talking points of the drug legalizers."

Healey said Wednesday, "We're grateful for President Biden's leadership on this at the federal level and proud to answer his call to take action in the states."

--Editing by Patrick Reagan.

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