For People with Past Weed Convictions, Legalization Battle Is Personal

Photo Credit: Mel Evans/AP/Shutterstock
April 9, 2019

By Chloe Aiello

Widowed and left to raise her two children alone, Jo Anne Zito needed a decent second job to help make ends meet. But twice in 2016 she missed out on gigs after potential employers learned she’d been busted for pot years earlier.

"Once you're in that criminalized zone, it's pretty hard to get out," Zito told Cheddar.

It was a single marijuana plant in 2012 that ultimately made life most difficult for Zito, who had two felony convictions stemming from that arrest. She eventually found a second job working in a warehouse in Elmwood Park, New Jersey, for $9 an hour, but like many New Jerseyans with a criminal record for pot, she struggles even as state officials negotiate an end to marijuana prohibition.

“My first arrest was when I was 19, so I kind of derailed my future,” Zito said. "It's horrible what you live through, I mean my life is surreal now."

Marijuana has long been considered a serious offense in Zito's home state of New Jersey. But attitudes are changing. Medical use has been legal since 2010. And lawmakers are still expected to allow recreational use even after support for a bill legalizing cannabis evaporated in March — in part over disagreements about what to do with the roughly 1 million residents like Zito convicted of marijuana crimes since 1992.

In recent years, New Jersey has arrested more people for marijuana-related offenses than any state outside Texas and New York. It had the highest per-capita arrest rate of any state other than Wyoming.

Authorities in New Jersey picked up 35,700 people in 2016 for marijuana-related offenses, despite a limited legal medical marijuana program, NJ.com reported. And blacks and other minorities are three times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession in New Jersey, according to 2013 data cited by the American Civil Liberties Union.

"If you have a marijuana conviction, it could be the impediment to a job, it could be the impediment to a student loan, housing" said Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora, who has pushed for marijuana reform for 22 years. He said broader legalization would be the key to ending the injustices of the so-called war on drugs -- so long as it's done right.

Some lawmakers and legal-pot advocates argued that the package of recreational marijuana bills that was introduced in the State Assembly and Senate earlier this year didn't go far enough to ensure that people with marijuana convictions could have their records expunged.

Under the bill that stalled in March, people convicted of marijuana crimes would have to apply to have their record expunged, a lengthy and complicated process. Advocates for expungement pushed for more robust measures, including upping the amount of cannabis to be eligible for expungement from 50 grams to 5 pounds. They also pressed Gov. Phil Murphy to promise to work toward a system of automatic expungement that would wipe clean a person’s criminal record whether or not they ask.

Expungement of previous marijuana convictions has a major issue in other states that have legalized cannabis. The city of San Francisco leaned on technology to institute automatic expungement for qualifying convictions, getting rid of more than 9,300 records. The Los Angeles district attorney Jackie Lacey said last week that her county would follow suit.

In New Jersey and elsewhere, however, advocates and lawmakers are still trying to figure out how best to rapidly end to what they consider unnecessary marijuana arrests, and figure out the crucial details of expungement.

Kassandra Frederique, director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New York, said it's important for lawmakers to get these bills right the first time, not rush to pass legislation with the intention of ironing out details later.

"We've never done the ‘figure-it-out-later’ part,” Frederique said. “And I think the way to move forward cannabis regulation is by supporting everyone."

Ed Forchion, the so-called NJ Weedman who owns a small cannabis-themed restaurant and “pot temple” across the street from the New Jersey State House in Trenton, wants to make sure he can participate in the state’s legal marijuana trade when that time comes, despite multiple convictions for possession, distribution, and charges for setting up a booby-trapped marijuana manufacturing facility.

He worries that his criminal record — and the time he spent in prison for his offenses — could keep him from enjoying the end of prohibition if the new laws are too restrictive.

"These marijuana offenses, even if they’re low level, it ruins your life," Forchion said. "I think that as legalization comes in, I think people like me deserve a piece of it."

Zito, for her part, sees the delay in legalization as an opportunity to push for more generous provisions.

"It stinks that it didn't pass," Zito said. But she’s optimistic the delay will ultimately make the bill stronger by expanding expungement and adding allowances for medical patients to grow their own cannabis. "Hopefully they'll add it now that we do have some time."

With additional reporting by Adriana Rabunski.