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Expungement clinics can change the legacy of cannabis in New York

March 21, 2023 Khari Edwards
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It is often said that New York has laid the groundwork to establish one of the country’s most progressive and restorative adult-use cannabis programs. However, there is still much work to be done by lawmakers, regulatory bodies and established industry presences alike to make sure the goals established by the MRTA are not only met but exceeded.  

One of these initiatives is to work to restore communities adversely affected by the War on Drugs and help reverse the ill-effects of cannabis prohibition, which is primarily being addressed through prioritizing cannabis licensing to minorities and justice-involved individuals (CAURD applicants). 

While priority licensing is part of the solution, New Yorkers convicted of cannabis-related offenses should not have to seek active participation in the industry to reap the benefits of legalization. This is why the legal cannabis industry should be present within and connected to these communities though outreach initiatives and programs. One common activation included in these efforts is hosting an expungement clinic.   

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These clinics help clear some of the most harmful and lasting effects of cannabis prohibition: the criminal records hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers have been left with, even after cannabis possession was largely decriminalized and the plant legalized. A reflection of the War on Drugs, this issue disproportionately affects minorities, specifically members of the Black community. Data shows that Black individuals made up 94% of cannabis arrests made by the NYPD in 2020.  

Although cannabis is now legal in New York, and automatic expungement is a component of New York law, the records of many individuals have yet to be cleared. This is due to an abundance of fees, petition requirements and the complications that come with accompanying convictions, as well as a lack of awareness that expungement is an option. These barriers are an unfortunate symptom of the disparities in our justice system and exist despite the legal framework, which is why simply decriminalizing the plant, or even providing priority licensing and writing “automatic expungement” into the laws is not enough.  

Criminal records create collateral consequences that can negatively affect nearly every aspect of an individual’s life, including employment, housing, education, public benefits, voting rights and even volunteer opportunities. These added challenges that come with lingering cannabis convictions only further disenfranchise these New Yorkers and exacerbate these barriers for future generations. 

To combat these barriers, expungement clinics have popped up to provide a community-centered, accessible and discreet opportunity for individuals to clear any additional convictions from their records and restore their civic rights. This effectively gives them a second chance to pursue new opportunities, in or out of the legal cannabis industry, and change legacies for future generations.  

A sign announces a draft bill that would decriminalize marijuana on a federal level Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. AP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades

Ultimately, the hope is that these clinics will one day be rendered useless and unnecessary, as all cannabis convictions are eventually expunged as New York has set the standard in that practice, and no new ones are ever filed. But until then, we need to have boots on the ground in these communities to provide all New Yorkers the opportunity to pursue an otherwise inaccessible chance to forge a clean slate and remove these convictions that have been associated with a lack of investments in communities and neighborhoods.  

This is why community leaders, elected officials and established industry entities must continue to invest in hosting these clinics. I have seen firsthand the ways in which they can change lives and tangibly reverse some of the damage done to these communities by cannabis prohibition and the War on Drugs. 

I encourage New Yorkers with remaining cannabis convictions to take the leap and attend one of these expungement clinics and continue to support our elected leaders like Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Senator Liz Krueger, who have been crucial in supporting restorative justice initiatives.

Khari Edwards is Head of Corporate Responsibility at Ayr Wellness. He spent over 25 years in public and government service, working for several elected officials, non-profit organizations, and city agencies where he focused on strengthening communities by advocating and addressing racial, health and civic disparities.

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