Marijuana decriminalization could help those with prior convictions

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MADISON (WKOW) — In Dane County, the possession and sale of marijuana continues to lead to more drug arrests than any other controlled substances, but as Governor Tony Evers presents his budget, he’s looking to change that statistic across the state.

His plan calls for the legalization of medical marijuana, decriminalization of recreational marijuana in small quantities and eliminating the requirement for families to get yearly certification from a physician to have CBD oil.

The plan also includes a path to expungement for those with prior possession and distribution convictions. It’s something Robert Ruth said is difficult for most people with criminal records in Wisconsin.

“I get phone calls all the time from people who say 10 years ago, 15 years ago I had a small problem. I got this criminal conviction. What can I do now, and generally the answer is nothing,” he said.

The criminal defense attorney said that includes nonviolent drug charges.

“Possession of marijuana is a very common offense in Dane County,” Ruth said.

According to the Department of Justice, in Dane County, there were 998 marijuana possession arrests in 2017. That’s more than all other possession arrests combined.

“It can eliminate job possibilities, housing possibilities, government benefits, a lot of things,” Ruth said.

Under current Wisconsin law, possession of less than an ounce is considered a misdemeanor on a first offense. Any future possession counts or intent to distribute any amount of marijuana is a felony.

Evers’ proposal would decriminalize possession and distribution of less than 25 grams of marijuana.

“To make sure that we’re having fairness in our criminal justice system,” Evers said.

Having helped offenders through that process, Ruth said expungement can clean up records but that can only go so far. Even if a judge expunges your conviction it still appears on your criminal record. It simply says “expunged” instead of “convicted.”

That’s why Ruth said the bigger impact from this proposal is the opportunity to keep records clean in the first place.

“You decriminalize it, you don’t have to hire a lawyer you don’t have to suffer the anxiety, you don’t have to go through the process,” he said.

Ruth said he’s also interested to see if this proposal allows older drug offenders to clear their records for the first time.

Under current Wisconsin law, you can only expunge your record if you’ve completed your sentence, it involved less than six years of prison time and you were under 25 when you were convicted.

Michelle Alfini

Michelle Alfini

Reporter, WKOW

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