Khalil was riding in a car in a Boston suburb with his brother and a friend in 2003 when, he recalls, a police cruiser “put the lights on us and pulled us over.”
The officer claimed that their vehicle matched the description of one involved in a shooting. According to the police report, as the officer approached the car, he saw Khalil “moving about in his seat in an apparent attempt to conceal something.” The officer told Khalil to get out of the car. As he patted him down, he noticed a substance, he would later write, that “through training and experience” he believed could be a package of illegal drugs.
Out of Khalil’s pocket came a small baggie of marijuana — and then out came the cuffs.
Seventeen years later, Khalil, now 44 and living in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, still enjoys pot. He likes to smoke and listen to music, typically hip-hop, like Griselda and Freddie Gibbs, or R&B (“anything soulful,” he said). Until 2016, Massachusetts had alternately ticketed, fined, arrested, charged, convicted, and incarcerated people for possessing, using, or selling marijuana. Today, smoking pot while listening to music — or having a small baggie in your pocket and going for a drive — is legal.
Khalil still calls BS on his nearly two-decade-old arrest. His lawyer, too, has noted the proliferation of “pretextual stops” made against Black and brown people in the state. Among the three people riding in the car that day back in 2003, only Khalil was convicted of a crime, for possession of less than a quarter-ounce of marijuana. That conviction continues to cast a shadow over his life.
In 2019 alone, more than half a million people across the country were arrested for simple possession of marijuana, which is more than the total number of people arrested in the same year for all violent crimes combined. Most of the people caught up in that onslaught of criminalization were Black and brown; studies have shown that Black people, on average, are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, even though both use marijuana at similar rates.
After decades of pushback — of calls for justice, pleas for rationality, and scientific studies finding benefits of marijuana use for pain management, the regulation of seizures, and the treatment of PTSD, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and nausea, among many other chronic conditions, with minimal side effects and little risk of addiction for adults — states, including Massachusetts, have begun to roll back the criminalization of pot.
In 2014, Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana use and sales, opening the doors to a cottage industry of growers, chic dispensaries, weed delivery services, weed vending machines, and even pot tourism. Today, legal sales top $1 billion a year in Colorado, contributing hundreds of millions in tax revenue. Ten other states have since followed Colorado, and in November, voters in four more states approved legalization ballot measures to do the same in coming months.
The wins for marijuana advocates reflect a sea change in cultural attitudes toward the drug, putting it on par with cash cows such as alcohol, cigarettes, and gambling. An exultant, and lucrative, plume of marijuana smoke seems to be hovering in the air. But the movement for legalization isn’t just about destigmatizing a plant and sorting the profits. It’s about halting the panoply of harms still being exacted — racially targeted overpolicing, mass incarceration, and vilification of drug users — and about building a more equitable future.
To achieve that idyllic future, reformers aren’t gazing only at the just pastures on the political horizon. They are also looking to undo the past wrongs that have shattered lives.
On the campaign trail, both President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris repeatedly mentioned the idea of expungements, or the retroactive erasure of past convictions for low-level marijuana offenses, mostly possession. And the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (The MORE Act), which would simultaneously expunge convictions as it legalized marijuana at the federal level, sailed through a vote in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives this month (though its passage in the Republican-led Senate is believed to be unlikely).
But the story of Massachusetts reveals the shortcomings of piecemeal legalization efforts for those who’ve been harmed by the drug war. Sometimes those in power shoot the confetti on legalization and only then seem to remember that people are still chained by old convictions or remain imprisoned. As marijuana use is legalized and normalized — as a new industry is born, as Grandma openly smokes to ease her arthritis and Mom and Dad pop weed gummies after the tykes are tucked in — Khalil still can’t get a job because of a 17-year-old marijuana conviction.
When Massachusetts legalized marijuana in 2016, legislators didn’t initially address what to do about those who had racked up minor pot convictions before our new era of cannabis enlightenment. After grassroots efforts and leadership from community and state criminal justice advocates, a new and complicated 2018 statute set up a system of expungement, but Khalil’s attempts to clear his record have been, so far, a halting and unsuccessful fiasco. (Vox is using Khalil’s Muslim name, not his legal name. Fearing continued discrimination, he and his lawyer requested that his legal name not be published.)
In practice, not only do those seeking expungements need a lawyer to secure one, but they are also subject to the whims of a judge who must rule that clearing a record is “in the interest of justice.” An unconvinced judge and delays provoked by the coronavirus have dragged Khalil’s case on for more than a year.
According to NORML, a marijuana legalization advocacy group that has been working on the issue for 50 years, across the country, there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of people like Khalil whose past marijuana convictions continue to weigh on their lives like millstones. “You have countless lives that have been ruined,” said Kimberly Napoli, an expungement advocate, Massachusetts Cannabis Advisory Board member, and one of the key players in the state’s legalization movement. In other words, expungement advocates and marijuana policy reformers have a lot of un-ruining to do.
Volunteers working for the DCMJ, a Washington, DC, group calling for cannabis to be removed from the Controlled Substances Act, roll hundreds of marijuana joints before a 2017 protest at the US Capitol calling on legislators to relax marijuana laws. Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images
KhalilKhalil doesn’t remember the details of the second time he was charged with marijuana possession, which took place three years later, in 2006. He only knows that it was one of the dozens of times — more than 20, in Khalil’s estimation — that he has been racially profiled and stopped and harassed by the police. “Just me being out in the street and the cops just profiling me,” he explained. Police, he told me, “don’t like to see a bunch of Black people congregating. It’s especially true for Black men … even on your own street.” And, with pot in his pocket again, he got his second marijuana charge.
Despite his vexed history with the plant, Khalil said simply, “I enjoy recreational smoking, and I don’t see myself stopping.” That’s where he is now, though he’s taken breaks in the past, and does so every year for Ramadan. He’s thought about quitting, he said, anytime his “financial situation started looking funny.” As he’s struggled to get or keep employment over the years, it’s been “funny” a lot.
A father of three, Khalil is a self-described family man. He keeps it low-key, doesn’t party, and harangues his neighbors about keeping the stairwell just outside of his apartment door free of trash and hard drugs. He and his girlfriend like to toil over abstract and complicated jigsaw puzzles — in mid-October, one was partially pieced together on the table, another glued in completion and hung on the wall. A collection of toy figurines made out of spray-paint can lids peopled the mantle under a flat-screen television. “We’re really into art and self-expression in this house,” Khalil said. At the squat coffee table in front of the sectional is where he smokes.
Khalil grew up in a two-parent home in the nearby middle-class neighborhood of Mattapan. Now he lives in a cluster of subsidized housing in Dorchester. The downward slide from his middle-class youth has been hard on him. “There’s people that are miserable here, and there’s a lot of drugs” — mostly heroin and crack.
The primary catch in his efforts to move to a calmer neighborhood has been the history that keeps popping up in the job application process. In one of his many attempts to land a solid position, Khalil made it to a second interview at a Whole Foods in 2016, but then, he said, they ran a background check and told him that, with his drug history, it was a no-go. He applied elsewhere, sometimes going to temp agencies, but nothing worked out long-term. He lost a job, then found work on the third shift at a warehouse, but couldn’t manage the schedule with his three kids. With Khalil unemployed, the family relied on his girlfriend working two jobs to hold things down.
“I wake up with the intention to pray so the rest of the day goes well. That is my life, somebody who commits his will to God as soon as he opens his eyes,” Khalil said. One of his prayers is to clear his record. Another: “I’ve been praying for years to find a job.”
IfIf you were stopped by the police in Massachusetts before 2008, when the state began incrementally decriminalizing possession, and you had a small amount of marijuana in your pocket or a single joint behind your ear, you could face an arrest, a fine, even jail time. The offense could become a permanent part of your record, hampering efforts to get a job, find housing, even access student loans. If you were stopped after December 2016, when the state fully legalized marijuana possession, you could flaunt a spliff in a cigarette holder and have an ounce of weed in your fanny pack, and you would face no charges, your job prospects would remain the same, and you could apply for housing or loans without the extra worry.
It’s this sense of arbitrariness that irks Khalil and others who believe expungement of marijuana convictions is a necessary step during the legalization process, and not just an afterthought. (At the federal level, any possession of marijuana remains punishable, at the first offense, by up to a $1,000 fine and a year in prison; it goes up from there. Federal prosecutions, however, became exceedingly rare after the Obama administration announced in 2013 it would no longer interfere with marijuana operations that followed state guidelines, and continue to plummet.)
The legal — some might call it ethical — discrepancy in Massachusetts wasn’t addressed by the state for nearly two more years, when the state passed an expungement statute in 2018, and lawmakers still didn’t make it easy. In fact, it’s been a mess.
Activists such as those from NORML, a marijuana legalization advocacy group (pictured in 2010), have moved the national conversation forward on the matter of expungement. But how to treat old pot convictions still varies from state to state. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Marijuana activists in 2019 hold up a 51-foot inflatable joint during a rally at the US Capitol to call on Congress to pass cannabis reform legislation. The federal Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act will likely
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