The Marijuana Decriminalization Law in New Jersey took effect last July, allowing the expungement of cannabis-related cases.
In a continued effort to increase expungement numbers, AYR Wellness and The Library of New Jersey, an aspiring social equity operator, have teamed up to offer a helping hand through the process.
AYR Wellness, a multi-state operator, started in February on what they called “Changing Legacies”. The mission of the initiative is to partner with nonprofit and community organizations to help individuals with cannabis-related offenses clear their records, allowing for a fresh start.
“The genesis of this program started with Jon Sandelman [Founder and CEO of AYR],” said Khari Edwards, Head of Corporate and Social Responsibility for the company. “When he hired me, he desired to create inclusion and educate within the industry. He wanted to be the force for good and he’s put a lot of ideas in motion.”
In New Jersey, the Superior Court expungement focuses on cases involving distribution of cannabis less than one ounce, offenses related to possession of over and under 50 grams, and possession of drug paraphernalia.
“We love to see expungements,” said Jacqueline Ferraro, Managing Director of the advocacy organization the Cannabis Advisory Group. “Let’s stop the arrests, let’s get people out of jail who have been arrested for cannabis which folks are profiting on.
“I know the state has auto-expungement that has been implemented with some success and there are a lot of groups that have hosted expungement events with success, but there are lawyers and costs for venues.
“Whoever is hosting, there is a cost for that. How do we come together as an industry? It’s tricky.”
Despite the Decriminalization Act, the process of getting a record cleared is challenging. A candidate must contact the court for a location to report to in person for their record or docket number information, with a likelihood that a motion must be filed with the court, with the possibility of requiring a lawyer for assistance.
Fees are attached at each step, making it an expensive and time-consuming process. Those eligible for such expungement have likely already spent time and money when being charged initially.
“People need the ability to have a fresh start,” said Edwards. “I spoke with a gentleman in New York who has been dealing with this since 1973, but didn’t have the wherewithal to get fingerprinted and get a lawyer. There are a lot of obstacles and our job is to break those chains.
“We are excited to do it. Let’s turn around and take care of people. It requires a lot of time and effort and money. What we have learned is, to get your rap sheet, it’s almost like the same process of getting arrested. That’s a head-trip that no one wants to deal with.”
The goal for any expungement applicant is to not have to report a prior offense on a job application, a housing or rental application, or any college entrance form. The case will also be removed from public record.
“Folks are affected,” said Ferraro. “There is a lot of unfairness when we talk about housing or jobs, when someone fills out an application and has to answer those questions. I’m hoping we see a stronger focus on expungement.
“There are a lot of leaders who have hosted expungement sessions and been successful. I would like to see the [New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission] host an expungement clinic. There are ways to continue to go about it to generate a focus on it.”
During last month’s event, which was held across five states, including New York and New Jersey, AYR Wellness helped over 400 attendees begin the process of expungement. Those are great numbers according to Edwards, but with over 2,000 people initially responding as attendees, there is still a stigma attached to the process.
“We aren’t charging anyone,” said Edwards. “We are partnering with local advocacy groups and promoting that we want to help. Someone took something from you that they shouldn’t have. You still have to be willing to show up, sit through orientation and meet with a lawyer even if we pay for it.”
Edwards wants to continue to help those in need. AYR will continue to hold these events across the country for as long as necessary. The final goal is to relieve the burden from as many people with non-violent, cannabis related crimes as they can.
“We want to be at the forefront, it’s not just lip service,” continued Edwards. “If someone can’t get housing or a job, then they become more of a burden.
“What we did is create an avenue to do this. We all always call community partners first and they are more than willing. There are a lot of folks who do this out of the goodness of their heart. So if we are able to put forth the energy, we are going to keep doing this as much as we can.”