Sometimes, a misdemeanor can feel like a life sentence.
It wasn't much marijuana. Enough to roll a few joints.
Enough to slap a college student with a fine and petty misdemeanor convictions for drug possession and paraphernalia.
Enough to change his life.
"I thought, 'Would it be worth finishing college if I have a criminal record?' " the young man said. "Who's going to hire me after I get my degree if I have a record?"
He was willing to let us use his full name in this story. But let's call him Jim, because this is a story about stigma and shame and the long shadows cast by minor drug busts.
Jim never finished college. He had a few other run-ins with the law over the next few years that added a few other misdemeanors to the record hanging over him every time he applied for a job or searched for a place to live.
"It affected the way I thought about my life," he said. "It affected the way I thought I'd be perceived."
Jim got older and life got better. He found a great job. He's thinking about finishing that degree. Court records indicate his encounters with the law are years in the past.
So last week, eight years after the drug bust, he sat down for a free legal consultation at the Green Goods medical cannabis clinic in downtown Minneapolis to begin the long process of sealing his criminal record so the mistakes of his past won't overshadow his future.
Upstairs at the cannabis clinic, pharmacists were filling prescriptions.
Downstairs, a volunteer team of attorneys and law students from the Mitchell Hamline School of Law's Reentry Clinic were filling out paperwork. More than 30 people signed up for the clinic, hoping to expunge minor, nonviolent drug offenses can that make it hard to find a job, sign a lease, or even apply for a student loan.
Green Goods, the first medical cannabis clinic to open its doors in Minnesota, is a tranquil downtown storefront where patients can browse gleaming display cases of lozenges, lotions and cannabis tinctures.
Vireo Health, the clinic's parent company, started hosting expungement clinics in other states after realizing how many of its patients had been prosecuted for using the same product they could now buy legally, said Dr. Paloma Lehfeldt, co-chair of Vireo's diversity, equity and inclusion council.
The laws changed. The drug convictions remained.
"We're dedicating ourselves to righting the wrongs caused by the war on drugs," Lehfeldt said. "It's unacceptable and criminal that people are still carrying these lifelong convictions for a substance that's deemed 'decriminalized.' "
Black and white Americans are equally likely to use marijuana. But the American Civil Liberties Union found that Black Americans are four times more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for it.
It's a familiar pattern for the volunteer legal team from Mitchell Hamline. Jon Geffen is director of the law school's Reentry Clinic, which helps people newly released from prison as they navigate their return to a world that holds their past against them.
They've seen families split apart because a landlord wouldn't rent to one of the parents who had a marijuana bust on their record. They've seen people working toward careers they love — teaching, health care, even drug and alcohol recovery counseling — only to get sidetracked by a long-ago misdemeanor marijuana offense.
"We see a lot more marijuana convictions in areas that are overpoliced," said Geffen. "There are a significant number of people of color burdened with these convictions."
Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana for adult use and 36 states have medical marijuana programs.
At the same time, the federal government still considers marijuana a dangerous toxin with no medical use. There have been 15 million cannabis arrests in the United States in the past decade, according to the Last Prisoner Project. Forty thousand people are currently incarcerated on marijuana offenses.
Minnesota doesn't make it easy to clear your record.
"In Minnesota, there's never a moment when it goes off your record," said Geffen, who has worked in expungement law for more than 20 years.
An offense that goes on your record when you're 19, he said, will still be on your record when you're 70. The only way to seal the record is to petition for expungement — a process that takes nine months and requires meticulous research into your criminal history, the services of a notary public, and at least one trip to court.
At the end of that, Geffen and his Reentry team get to watch their clients return to a courtroom — and get a fresh start.
"The court says 'You did a great job. You did everything we asked and we're going to expunge this,' " he said. "It's the best feeling in the world. People cry. It's great."
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