Four Maine legislators are pursuing legislation to seal or expunge the records of people with past marijuana convictions following the legalization of recreational pot, putting Maine in line to potentially follow other states that have cleared criminal records for conduct that is now legal.

But the details of the policy proposals – which are four bill titles among at least 25 submitted this session related to cannabis – have not been released or written, and depending on whether there are substantive differences between the final versions of the bills, Maine’s Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety may have to consider competing versions.

Proponents say the policy would level the playing field for people who still bear the consequences of a criminal history for an offense that is no longer illegal.

Two of the four bill titles, which were sponsored separately by Sen. James Dill, D-Orono, and Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, call for expungement, which generally means the permanent deletion of a record.

The other two bill titles, sponsored separately by Rep. Justin Fecteau, R-Augusta, and Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, call for sealing cases, which generally means rendering the convictions invisible to prospective employers and the public without deleting them from the record.

A spokeswoman for the Maine Judiciary, Elaine Clark, could not immediately provide a number of people in Maine who have convictions that may be subject to expungement or sealing if such a law took effect, saying all data requests must be reviewed before release.

Dill said the issue has come up over time when he’s been out campaigning in his district, but before recreational marijuana was passed into law in 2016. Now things are different, he said.

“I’m looking at any convictions that would be legal (today), whether it was two years ago or 22 years ago, let’s get rid of it,” Dill said. “Times have changed. People’s feelings have changed.”

Farnsworth made similar points, although both legislators were hesitant to go far into the details, saying they need more time to research and refine their plans before final bill text is submitted.

“My philosophy is ‘Hey, we’ve made recreational marijuana legal,’ ” Farnsworth said. “People who are involved in these fairly minor charges of possession should not have to be punished by carrying that on their record.”

PALATABILITY COULD DEPEND ON COST

Scott Gagnon, chair of the Maine chapter of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposed the legalization bill, said he is on board with correcting criminal justice issues associated with the old convictions and said his group’s opposition to the legalization bill was largely on public health grounds.

“We want to read the full bill, but the idea of it is something we’ve supported from the beginning, looking at actual criminal justice reforms,” Gagnon said. “I’m frankly surprised this wasn’t in the (2016 voter) initiative or in any of the implementation bills.”

Expungement was rarely discussed by state lawmakers tasked with drafting Maine’s recreational and medical cannabis laws. Former Democratic Rep. Diane Russell of Portland says she kept expungement out of her early legalization efforts on purpose to give her bills a better chance at passage.

When it did come up, usually in the context of whether a past cannabis conviction should prevent someone from working in the cannabis industry, lawmakers agreed to delay the debate until after the foundation of an adult-use program was established.

Under current state marijuana laws, people who have minor marijuana convictions, even if they happened recently, can still work in the recreational cannabis sector. Only those with recent felony convictions for drug offenses still on the books now are ineligible.

Within the Legislature, Dill said he doesn’t anticipate wide opposition, but the measure’s palatability could swing on the cost.

Legislation that places a heavier responsibility on the state to research and seek out people with eligible convictions would likely be more expensive, Dill said, “which can be a death sentence.”

“I have to see where the fiscal note lies,” Dill said.

STATES, CITIES HAVE BLAZED A TRAIL

If Maine lawmakers choose to move forward, they will have numerous templates to follow from around the country.

States including Massachusetts, Oregon, Maryland, Rhode Island, California and Washington, along with city courts in Denver, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle and other local jurisdictions have taken steps to purge pot convictions at a policy level.

Massachusetts allows people with any misdemeanor pot possession conviction to petition for expungement, while people with felony marijuana convictions may request expungement for crimes that occurred in the previous seven years that were not committed against a person.

The California marijuana criminal records law, which went into effect this year, requires the state’s Department of Justice to comb through old records to find cases eligible for resentencing, dismissal sealing or redesignation, and sets up a process with deadlines to either clear those records or hear objections from prosecutors who believe expunging a case wouldn’t serve the public interest.

Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee, meanwhile, announced last week that his administration would clear the way for about 3,500 people to apply for pardons without having to hire a lawyer or go to court.

Maine first began easing criminal sanctions on marijuana possession in 1976, when the state decriminalized possession of small amounts of pot. Medical marijuana has been legal in Maine since 1999, but it was another decade before lawmakers took further steps to reduce possession penalties for people without a medical use card.

Legalization of recreational marijuana followed in 2016, and since then, state officials have been working to establish the regulatory framework for recreational pot sales.

TWO DOZEN CANNABIS-RELATED BILLS

In addition to the four proposals, state lawmakers will take up at least 25 other cannabis-related bills this session, with the adult-use and medical programs getting equal attention with nine bills each. Lawmakers had predicted this wave of legislative tweaks and backlash in the wake of Maine’s enactment of its recreational marijuana market law and a sweeping medical cannabis reform law.

Some proposals are placeholder bills that will be used as procedural vehicles for as-yet unnamed program reforms, while others are more narrowly focused, like the proposal from Rep. Michael Sylvester, D-Portland, to allow municipalities to impose a local sales tax on adult-use sales, or the bid by Rep. Benjamin Collings, D-Portland, to compel health and disability insurers to require reimbursement for medical marijuana.

State lawmakers had included a local sales tax in their first attempt to rewrite the broad legalization question that voters passed at referendum in 2016, but yanked that provision out of the bill the second time around to secure enough Republican support to override a gubernatorial veto. Last year, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court struck down a workers’ compensation board vote to require employers to pay for an employee’s medical marijuana.

The narrowly written proposals range from a bill to replace the word “marijuana” with “cannabis” in all state statutes to a bill allowing cannabis businesses to bank with state-chartered credit unions to a bill to establish a roadside cannabis impairment testing method.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MattByrnePPH

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