Effort underway to help people expunge cannabis-related convictions from their records
Attorney Ventura Dennis knows the stakes.
"Just having any interaction with the criminal justice system may mean that you cannot find housing or a means to provide for yourself," said Dennis, staff attorney for the CORI & Re-Entry Project with Greater Boston Legal Services.
That's why on Saturday, she was in Somerville giving people free legal advice on whether they qualify to have their marijuana-related convictions expunged, and if they do, how to start the process. That advice was part of a clinic hosted by Ayr Wellness — a company that had marijuana dispensaries in the Commonwealth. It was just one clinic in a series hosted this weekend across the Northeast called "Changing Legacies."
"It is very important that people recognize how many people are on the sidelines of life because they were arrested ... [and] it doesn't necessarily mean you were even convicted," said Dwan Packnett, VP of Government Relations and Community Investment for Ayr Wellness in Massachusetts.
The expungements are possible thanks to a cannabis social equity bill signed into law last spring. This is the second year that expungement clinics have been held in Massachusetts.
In a previous interview with WBUR, Ayr Wellness said 200 people had their records expunged because of the series in 2022, including 36 in Massachusetts. But it's estimated that thousands more people in the Commonwealth are still eligible and have not gone through the process.
According to Ventura Dennis, with Greater Boston Legal Services, convictions and dismissed charges could be eligible for expungement, both of which can negatively impact your ability to find stability.
"Convictions are a huge roadblock to finding jobs, finding housing and finding training opportunities," said Dennis. "But dismissed charges can also be just as difficult to get past because employers usually don't understand or take into account that the charge was dismissed."
Saturday's clinic was held at the Connexion United Methodist Church in Somerville. The Church's reverend, Jordan Harris, says expunging these records should be important for everyone in the community.
"It's an imperative, actually," said Harris. "We continue to have [an] eviction crises on our hands. We continue to have a lot of unhoused folks. We just continue to struggle as a whole, as a community," said Harris.
But for Dwan Packnett, from Ayr Wellness, expungement is personal.
"I understand as a Black woman, I understand the discrepancies and how easy it is to get arrested, if you are a person of color, if you're Black, and if you made a mistake," said Packnett. "It could be you did something and you made a mistake, but you aren't getting the benefit of the doubt. And I think that that has to change. And this is one way to begin to change that."
More information on expunging a criminal record in Massachusetts can be found here.