Expunge convictions for medical marijuana patients in Missouri. But don’t stop there

Local aquaponics founder Dre Taylor wants equity for minorities when it comes to the industry of legal marijuana

Local aquaponics founder Dre Taylor wants equity for minorities when it comes to the industry of legal marijuana
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Local aquaponics founder Dre Taylor wants equity for minorities when it comes to the industry of legal marijuana

It’s encouraging that some lawmakers in Missouri want to take incremental steps toward reforming marijuana laws now that medical cannabis is legal. This should be the year that legislators move beyond blowing smoke and take action on this issue.

Legislators should protect the rights of potential medical marijuana patients. But don’t stop there. Those convicted of nonviolent, misdemeanor pot offenses should have their records expunged as the state moves closer to decriminalizing the drug.

Individuals with drug convictions on their records face barriers to housing, employment and education, research shows. A low-level, nonviolent offense shouldn’t derail the rest of someone’s life.

Missouri House Bill 341 would expunge prior misdemeanor marijuana convictions for those who qualify for medical marijuana cards under the state’s new program. The legislation, introduced by state Rep. Ron Hicks, a Dardenne Prairie Republican, allows for just one expungement per cardholder.

The proposal will be heard by the House’s Special Committee on Criminal Justice on Thursday.

Committee members should consider how outdated marijuana laws have disproportionately affected minorities and low-income Missourians. They also should also be mindful of the fact that in November, voters overwhelmingly approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Full legalization of pot in Missouri could be next.

“This is just common-sense, bipartisan legislation,” Hicks said.

Another measure, House Bill 292, would retroactively expunge all misdemeanor pot convictions during the last 20 years. Any convictions after Aug. 29, 2019, would be wiped away.

The bill, introduced by state Rep. Barbara Washington, has been read twice and awaits a committee assignment.

“As we move forward, we need to let those people move on with their life,” Washington, a Democrat from Kansas City, said.

There is little organized opposition to expungement. And Gov. Mike Parson is willing to consider such measures.

“The governor is open to proposals and (an expungement law) is something he would consider,” said Steele Shippy, spokesman for the governor’s office. “But he still needs to see the final proposals as they make their way through the legislative process.”

Jeff Mizanskey was sentenced to life in prison without parole on a nonviolent marijuana-related charge. He was freed after serving 21 years. He now lobbies for reforming marijuana laws.

“The people of Missouri need it,” Mizanskey said of Hicks’ measure. “If we can save just one (medical marijuana user’s) life, it’s worth it.”

Elected officials in Missouri could look to Illinois as an example of progressive marijuana policy. Lawmakers there have introduced a similar bill that would expunge minor pot convictions; allow people with misdemeanor pot convictions to work in cannabis facilities; create additional cannabis licensing categories to break down barriers to entry in the industry; and encourage cannabis firms to set diversity hiring goals and require them to lay out plans for reinvesting in the communities they serve.

Cook County’s state attorney vowed to expunge all misdemeanor pot convictions and has pushed for full legalization of marijuana.

Here in Jackson County, Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker moved away from prosecuting most possession cases.

But these efforts do little to help a person who can’t get a job or apartment because of a past marijuana conviction.

Overly punitive marijuana laws have taken a toll on the lives of thousands of Missourians. Lawmakers should give those convicted of misdemeanor marijuana offenses a fresh start by expunging their records.