Residents are still struggling to clear their records for marijuana convictions nearly a year after a ballot measure legalizing the drug passed statewide, and Ann Arbor, despite its historically progressive stance on the issue, is no exception.
In terms of marijuana regulation, Ann Arbor has been highly regarded as ahead of the, well, strain. Yet, following the legalization of recreational marijuana, many who have been charged are wondering: Why are these arrests still on our records?
In 1972, Ann Arbor City Council passed an ordinance that made the possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil infraction, or just a small fine. However, The Daily filed for a Freedom of Information Act and found there were 317 marijuana-related arrests made by the Ann Arbor Police Department between 2016 and 2018. There are still more than 235,000 Michigan residents with records relating to low-level marijuana use and possession.
After Michigan passed Proposal 1 last year legalizing recreational marijuana, some Michigan legislators have worked to ensure people with drug offenses do not continue to suffer the consequences. Over the past few years, 15 states have passed bills expunging minor marijuana convictions. In 2019 alone, Illinois, Nevada, New Hampshire and Washington have all passed legislation that allows a person to petition their conviction. In some cases, like in Washington, misdemeanor charges are completely vacated.
Former Michigan state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit; state Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor; and state Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, have all been on the forefront of expanding criminal expungement for certain misdemeanor and felony charges that weren’t assaultive crimes, such as the possession of marijuana. Other supporters of the bills include Reps. Eric Leutheuser, R-Hillsdale; Pauline Wendzel, R-Watervliet; David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids; and Luke Meerman, R-Coopersville.
In addition, Rabhi wrote part of a bipartisan expungement package in the House, which includes measures aimed at eliminating small-time drug offenses that could hurt one’s ability to get a well-paying job or apply for housing.
“Most of this applies to people who are no longer in jail or in a prison, people that have completed their sentences, that have completed their probation, that have completed their parole, but that still have those offenses on their record,” Rabhi said in an interview with The Daily. “And that is problematic of course because when you apply for a job, when you apply for housing and you still have that crime on your record, it is nearly impossible to find a good job, or even to find good housing.”
Yet, even if Ann Arbor enacts these anti-discrimination regulations for housing companies, it’s unclear how city council will guarantee companies abide to the new protocol. City Councilmember Elizabeth Nelson, D-Ward 4, said ensuring housing companies do not discriminate can be difficult to enforce.
“The big challenge for us is enforcement,” Nelson said. “So, any housing issue, we can make a rule about it, but how are we going to enforce it? We can make policies of anti-discrimination, but the question is, who’s going to come to us and say, ‘We experienced this, what’s the penalty?’ If I have a record and I’m going to rent an apartment and I get rejected, is there a process for me to go to the city and file a complaint? Is there a process for the city to impose some consequence on that landlord? That’s the challenge.”
Among the other bills in the package are measures that would expedite the otherwise lengthy and costly process of expungement. There are many steps, such as notarizing an application and mailing copies to prosecutors and law enforcement, that prevent ex-offenders from even applying.
According to a 2019 study done by University of Michigan law professors Sonja B. Starr and J.J. Prescott, over 90 percent of people who qualify for expungement neglect to appeal their convictions.
Rabhi also noted how this is largely because expungement can currently cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars in legal fees. Rabhi said passing legislation on expungement would alleviate this problem.
“One of the biggest things is that a lot of people cannot afford to get their records expunged because it’s costly,” Rabhi said. “You have to go to an attorney and get them to help you, and obviously attorneys charge you for that, so the vast majority of people who are eligible to get their records expunged don’t. And so one of the bills in the package creates an automatic expungement process, so that peoples’ records can be automatically expunged if they’re eligible, without them having to apply or petition for expungement.”
Rabhi also acknowledges that in many cases, crimes like possession and sale of marijuana do not occur in a vacuum. Oftentimes, drug-related crimes can occur in conjunction with other infractions — non-assaultive crimes or misdemeanors — a person may not have committed before, but that can permanently damage their record. According to Rabhi, the expungement package deals particularly with people who may only have committed one crime, like small time robbery, can be faced with dozens of various charges.
“Oftentimes what happens is, honestly — is the prosecutors overcharge,” Rabhi said. “They’ll find a bunch of different crimes that somebody did and they’ll heap them on.”
Rabhi used the personal example of his 2007 arrest for protesting the use of sweatshops in the production of U-M apparel. According to Rabhi, after he and a number of other protesters occupied a University building, he was faced with a multitude of various charges.
“They heaped up two misdemeanors on top of each other,” Rabhi said. “That’s what they do. And so this ‘One Bad Night’ bill, if I had been convicted of both misdemeanors, then those would count as one for the purposes of expungement.”
However, newly appointed Ann Arbor Police Chief Michael Cox said he does not know how much of an impact the new legislations would have on Ann Arbor, as cannabis has been “deemphasized” for almost 50 years within in Ann Arbor.
“Drugs in general have been deemphasized in a lot of ways, but some of the things that come around it, you know, whether the people who make money from it — not legally but illegally — they tend to do other things, too, whether it’s carry firearms illegally, maybe rob other people,” Cox said. “So, we still have to pay attention to that. I think personally, it just helps us focus more on real crime so to speak.”
Lily Tushman, LSA junior and secretary of the Prison Birth Project, is optimistic about the future of these bills, even though they might only affect a small number of people in Ann Arbor. She cited the fact that these effects would greatly aid people of color. According to MLive, “black men age 18 to 24 are almost 10 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses compared to white women that age, even though marijuana usages rates between the two groups are only fractionally different.”
“I think the expungement proposal is an important step towards addressing the racial disparities in marijuana charges and sentencing,” Tushman said. “Making it automatic also removes some of the cost and time barriers people face when they have to deal with the court system to get their record expunged.”
Leah Graham contributed reporting to this article.