Illinois Is Expunging Marijuana Convictions, But That Will Only Do So Much

“Expungement, for the most part, is not done with just a snap of the fingers and all the records go away,” says a criminal justice reform advocate.

When Lucas Loy was 17, he was pulled over and arrested for marijuana possession. Loy was eventually charged as an adult, convicted of a class 3 felony and incarcerated for several months. His whole life was turned upside down. 

Twelve years later, Loy, now 29, may get a second chance. 

He was moved to tears when he watched Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) sign a bill into law last week that legalized marijuana. The bill also allowed some people to have their weed convictions expunged ― removed or erased from their public record. 

Like many former felons, Loy said he’s been denied housing, was ineligible for academic financial aid and lost job opportunities as a result of his record. A longtime advocate for marijuana legalization, Loy said the last 12 years of his life have been a nightmare, so he is incredibly hopeful about any new chance to drop the charges from his record.

For Loy, nationwide marijuana legalization that focuses on investing in communities is a step in the right direction.

“This movement was built on the backs of those lost, marginalized, incarcerated, and suffering felonies after the fact of legalization,” he said. “I’m hoping that this industry will write and pass equity provisions across the nation, state to state.”

Eleven states have legalized marijuana and 14 states have decriminalized it. But that doesn’t always help people who already have marijuana-related convictions on their records or communities devastated by the war on drugs. Although marijuana use by black and white people is about the same, a 2013 study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people nationwide.

As a result, people of color in low-income communities are often impacted the most by punitive drug policies. Illinois’ new law is part of a broad push by criminal justice advocates to ensure that those people and communities aren’t left out by the movement to legalize marijuana

The state took a major step forward last week when it began to expunge marijuana convictions for up to 770,000 cases, as well as legalize adult use of recreational marijuana. The law also created a Cannabis Business Development Fund that gives grant money to those impacted by the war on drugs such as former felons and their families. It will reinvest 25 percent of cannabis tax revenue into a fund for anti-violence programs, re-entry programs, and health services for “R3 communities” ― places identified as the most impacted because they have the highest incidences of violence, childhood poverty, and returns from Illinois Department of Corrections.

Gov. J. B. Pritzker signs a bill that legalizes adult-use cannabis in the state of Illinois at Sankofa Cultural Arts and Busi
Gov. J. B. Pritzker signs a bill that legalizes adult-use cannabis in the state of Illinois at Sankofa Cultural Arts and Business Center in Chicago on June 25. Illinois becomes the 11th to legalize the adult-use of recreational marijuana.

“Just allowing for folks to make money off of drug sales really isn’t enough. You really need to look backward at kind of the harm that it’s done,” said Sharone Mitchell Jr., the deputy director of the Illinois Justice Project, a group that advocates for criminal justice reform. 

The law is a model for other states to follow, state Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D), an Illinois House of Representatives sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. The governor and bill supporters were adamant about providing restorative justice, not just collecting revenue because, “for us, this is first and foremost an issue of social justice,” Cassidy said.

Illinois had one of the country’s largest racial disparities in marijuana arrests: black people were over seven and a half times more likely to get arrested. So whenever Loy tells his story, he makes sure to tell people he’s an outlier. 

“I’m a white guy who was tried as an adult at 17. And it’s rare,” Loy said. “The majority of [affected] people are people of color, because ... they’re disproportionately harassed.”

While expunging records helps those who’ve had felony convictions, it does not get rid of all the obstacles that they still face.

For instance, removing charges doesn’t get rid the record of them online, since private companies scrape records from county clerks offices nationwide and collect them in online databases. Those companies rarely update their information when it changes. Even if a conviction gets expunged, it may still come up in web searches and ruin job prospects for people.

Anyone charged ― but not convicted ― with possession of under 30 grams is eligible for “automatic expungement,” but it’s not an instant change for others. There are 102 counties in Illinois, so each one may not be proactive about finding their records or even support the expungement process, Mitchell said. 

“Expungement, for the most part, is not done with just a snap of the fingers and all the records go away,” he said. 

People convicted of more than 30 grams and less than 500 grams may have to wait for a pardon from the governor or file a motion in court to get their records removed. Former offenders can get their court fees waived, but it may take months or even years for the change to be finalized. 

Chris Lindsey, senior legislative counsel at the Marijuana Policy Project, a marijuana policy reform organization that worked on the bill as well, told the HuffPost the group will be watching closely to make sure the Illinois law delivers on their promises.    

“Legalization has to be part of the healing process as we recover from the failed war on cannabis,” Lindsey said in a statement after the law passed. “Illinois has taken giant steps toward reducing that harm and resetting the whole system for the better.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said anyone in Illinois charged with under 30 grams is eligible for “automatic expungement.” Only those who were charged but not convicted qualify.