Tens of thousands of Virginians who were arrested for selling or transporting small quantities of cannabis just got their criminal records wiped clean.
Since the beginning of July, law enforcement officials have sealed 64,651 criminal records relating to misdemeanor marijuana distribution charges, according to the state legislature's Cannabis Oversight Commission. These records have now been erased from the state criminal record database, and will no longer appear on background checks conducted by employers, landlords, colleges, or government officials.
The expungement of these distribution cases is the second phase of a long-term plan to help right the wrongs of prohibition. The first phase began last year, when Virginia decriminalized the possession of up to an ounce of weed. This law also directed state courts to identify and expunge prior criminal cases involving the possession of up to an ounce. Since July 1, 2020, the day that the decriminalization law took effect, the state has sealed 333,886 minor pot possession cases.
Exactly one year later, Virginia fully legalized cannabis, officially allowing adults to possess up to an ounce of pot and grow their own weed. The new law will also create a regulated retail market sometime in 2024, and includes additional provisions to expedite automatic expungements for low-level cannabis crimes. Since the law took effect, the state has only gotten around to sealing cases relating to cannabis distribution, but officials say the process will advance further after the court system updates its criminal records software.
Although Virginia is making progress towards erasing the criminal records of former offenders, the new adult-use law does not address the plight of people currently serving time for cannabis crimes. State Department of Corrections data shows that 10 people are currently imprisoned for nonviolent cannabis offenses, and many more may still be locked behind bars for weed-related parole and probation violations.
“These initial record sealings by Virginia State Police are a small step toward righting the wrongs of cannabis prohibition,” said NORML Development Director JM Pedini in a statement. “There remains much work to be done to permanently remove these stains from Virginians’ records, and we’re committed to continuing our efforts in the 2022 General Assembly to help expedite that process.”
Most adult-use states have passed laws giving former cannabis offenders a chance to clear their criminal records, but Virginia has already sealed more cases than most other states. Illinois currently leads the pack when it comes to expungements, having cleared half a million former cannabis convictions since the end of 2019. New Jersey has also managed to clear over 362,000 cases in less than three months. In contrast, California has only cleared 200,000 pot cases since 2018, and New York hasn't even cleared 100,000 cases yet.