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Healey announces sweeping pardons for simple possession of cannabis

Gov. Maura Healey speaks at a hearing at the Massachusetts State House. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Gov. Maura Healey speaks at a hearing at the Massachusetts State House. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

In a move she described as “nation-leading” in its scope and ambition, Gov. Maura Healey on Wednesday unveiled plans to pardon all people convicted of simple marijuana possession in Massachusetts.

“We believe this is the most sweeping cannabis pardon announced by any governor in the United States,” said Healey, adding, “The reason we do this is simple: justice requires it.”

Her pardon was met with a round of applause from state elected officials, criminal justice reform advocates, people impacted by simple possession convictions and members of law enforcement who joined Healey for the announcement on the grand staircase steps inside the Massachusetts State House.

Though the exact number is unknown, Healey’s office said the pardon could affect “hundreds of thousands” of people in Massachusetts.

Healey’s pardon forgives all state court misdemeanor convictions for possession of marijuana before March 13, 2024. It does not apply to charges of distribution, trafficking, or operating a motor vehicle under the influence.

Healey said the pardon will be automatic for most people, but those who need proof of the pardon before their record is updated or believe they may have been passed over can apply through an online form.

The plan still needs sign-off from the Governor’s Council, the elected eight-member body that approves pardons and judicial confirmations.

Healey said the decision was about equity, noting that communities of color have been disproportionately targeted by law enforcement for drug possession. A 2016 report from the ACLU of Massachusetts found that while Black people represented only 8% of the state’s population, they comprised 24% of marijuana possession arrests.

Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan said the move is a prime example of how the state has been reforming the criminal justice system.

“We’ve been working really hard in Massachusetts to be much more thoughtful about how can we really be smart about preserving public safety, but at the same time lessening the impact of the criminal system on people’s lives,” Ryan told WBUR. “And being able to do this is an important part of that.”

Healey in her 2022 campaign for governor had promised to pardon state convictions for simple marijuana possession. This week’s announcement came after President Biden ordered pardons for people with federal simple possession convictions, and encouraged governors across the country to do the same.

People in Massachusetts are already able to expunge certain marijuana-related convictions after a landmark 2018 criminal justice reform law. But advocates criticize the process as bureaucratic and inaccessible, and multiple reports find it’s rarely used.

Past marijuana convictions and charges — even charges that were eventually dismissed — can show up on background checks, making it hard for those affected to secure jobs or housing.

“This announcement today means that people in every community across the state will no longer be punished for behavior that’s now legal,” ACLU of Massachusetts Executive Director Carol Rose said in an interview.

Healey’s use of her office’s pardon power is a major departure from her recent predecessors. Healey pardoned 13 people in her first year — the most since former governor Michael Dukakis. Gov. Charlie Baker pardoned 15 people during his entire eight years in office.

Massachusetts voters legalized recreational marijuana through a ballot question in 2016. The cannabis industry has since surpassed $5.65 billion in gross sales in the state.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2024 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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