Craig Cesal: From Felon to Cannabis Freedom Fighter

Imagine being sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a non-violent cannabis crime you were circumstantially connected to. You’re separated from your family and friends for the better part of two decades. You watch as state after state legalizes cannabis, yet you remain behind bars. It’s a story too sad, too infuriating, too agonizingly unjust for words. This is the very real story of Craig Cesal; a former cannabis prisoner-turned-campaigner who’s using his knowledge of life on the inside to help others with stories like his to regain their freedom.

In 2002, Cesal co-owned a towing company near Chicago that recovered and repaired trucks for a rental company. At a checkpoint in Laredo, TX, US border agents discovered 1,500 pounds of cannabis hidden in secret compartments inside one of the trucks he repaired. In 2003, Cesal was convicted of leasing vehicles to smugglers and was handed a life sentence without the possibility of parole on drug conspiracy charges—even though he had no prior convictions.

When Cesal was initially incarcerated in a maximum-security prison, he says he was angry and depressed. But there was no point dwelling on his fate and feeling sorry for himself—that’s not his style. “I quickly realized that emotion wasn’t productive,” he says.

Cesal says he started using his time to help his fellow prisoners achieve their freedom, finding value and purpose in helping inmates write their legal appeals. Soon, campaigning for prisoner justice became his focus.

“They put me in a county jail in a poor mountainous area of rural Georgia,” Cesal says. “I was one of only a handful of people among some 600 inmates who could actually read and write. I became the guy to read and write their letters and especially explain their legal documents.” So began Cesal’s daily fight “to get all of us prisoners what we were entitled to in the justice system,” he says. “In the long haul, it gave me value for the inmates and the warden because instead of inmates burning cellblocks down, I could now lead a protest within the rails. And the wardens respected that, as much as they didn’t like it [laughs].”

And that’s how Craig Cesal passed the endless months and years of his unimaginable life sentence.

“I lived better than most,” he admits wryly. “I’d walk through the food line and I might have had a concurrent sentence removed for the guy serving the hamburgers. Or I might have been fighting for a lower sentence for the guy putting the vegetables on the plate. So, my meals were usually heavier than the others.”

When COVID-19 struck in 2020, Cesal finally had his first taste of freedom in nearly two decades.

“The Bureau of Prisons could assign home confinement to the inmates who had less than two years left on their sentences, were also shown to be non-violent while in prison and be susceptible to COVID,” he says. “I aggravated the warden so much—as a lifer, I wasn’t qualified for home confinement. But Cheri Sicard led an army of people harassing the warden, harassing the Director of the Bureau of Prisons in Washington, DC—even the attorney general himself. The warden then told me, ‘We’re sending you home. I know it’s not legal, but it will only become an issue if you commit another crime—and I don’t think you will.’ That gave me the tools to fight for clemency under the Trump administration.”

Craig Cesal and Cheri Sicard toast to his freedom. Photo courtesy of Cheri Sicard

A Second Chance

Cesal was granted clemency by the former president in his final hours in office. Other men would put the prison experience behind them and forget the ones left behind. But Cesal isn’t most men. He teamed up with the lawyers and allies that fought for his freedom to help his fellow cannabis prisoners who remain behind bars to form the nonprofit, Second Chance Foundation, which specializes in fighting for cannabis prisoners’ freedom.

“My full-time job is seeking clemency and relief for the cannabis offenders that are mainly in federal prison as well as state prisons where you know that there might be an avenue of relief for them,” he says. “Right now, we’re representing 267 federal marijuana prisoners hoping for President Biden’s clemency. He’s promised to give them clemency and we’re doing everything to hold him accountable.”

Cesal says he communicates daily with at least 30 prisoners, including their families and legal representatives. He’s exceptionally good at what he does—and doing it on a shoestring budget.

“After nearly two decades of being a jailhouse lawyer, I know how to game the system—and how to beat it,” he says. “I’ve helped a couple of inmates over the last few months walk out of prison who are now at home with their families. I wrote and filed their legal motions, and both were granted. It’s so rewarding—I always feel I have to get results from the Biden administration.”

The Fight for Clemency

Cesal says clemency is one of the few things in the US Constitution that came from the King of England. “There are two kinds of clemency,” he says. “One is a pardon, which does away with the conviction on the person’s record. Another one is commutation, where the president has the power to reduce (or eliminate) the actual prison sentence. My prison sentence was reduced from life without the possibility of parole in prison to time served; yet, I still had five years of supervised release, which is our federal government’s fancy term for ‘parole to serve.’ That’s why the president may commute people’s sentences in federal prison, but there’s no federal expungement law. So, all those records still exist, which means it’s still evident when somebody applies for employment or housing. Former prisoners can walk in with this piece of paper from the president and say, ‘I’ve been pardoned,’ but in most cases, it’s kind of meaningless when seeking employment or housing.”

Cesal believes a presidential expungement provision—where all prison records can be erased—is a crucial part of federal legislation and cannabis justice reform.

“I want President Biden to develop a special program for cannabis offenders that relies on dealing with activists like me who actually understand the system,” he says. “Some people would say the removal of a prisoner wouldn’t be considered by our clemency system to be a marijuana inmate. One obvious example is sometimes it’s easier to prove the person was spending proceeds from marijuana sales, therefore, it’s technically ‘money laundering,’ than to prove when and where they sold the cannabis. This means people are in prison for spending the proceeds from cannabis sales, not for possessing cannabis specifically. I want those sentences to go away. Several people I know are currently serving 20 years for that.”

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Now, Cesal really knows how the prison system works, how things can be improved and how to play the game. He recently started working with elected officials from his home state of Illinois as part of a “study committee that looks at recommended changes to a lot of cannabis laws here in Illinois,” he says.

To help fund the Second Chance Foundation and continue to fight for clemency without the help of major donors, Cesal has taken up a second job. Ironically, he says, working with the recently retired deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and START-OPP, a support service that “works with employers and justice-involved individuals to create successful reentry outcomes,” according to its website.

“We’re from totally opposite ends of the arena and yet here we are working on specialty operations,” he says of the retired deputy director. “We’re bringing training programs into prisons that inmates can do over the course of their last year in prison. If they complete the program, they’re guaranteed a job with one of these big companies the day they walk out and taste freedom.”

Cesal becomes eager to tell a story.

“When I got out of prison, I didn’t own anything but the clothes I was wearing,” he says, amused by the memory. “I went to Target to buy socks, underwear and other necessities. I walked in and I realized I had no idea what size underwear I wore [laughs]. In prison, you don’t get to pick a size. I’d been inside for 19 years and my weight had fluctuated by about ten pounds. I honestly didn’t know what size I wore. And, of course, you can’t try them on, so I had to buy two sizes. That’s something nobody else would ever consider.”

There are more serious matters, too. Cesal says his social security number was terminated while imprisoned and he had to endure months of arguments with the Social Security Administration (SSA), trying to convince them that he was, in fact, very much alive.

“The SSA doesn’t maintain their own database, they rely on the three big credit unions,” he says. “And since I didn’t have any credit, I was technically considered ‘dead.’ Even walking into the office with my ID wasn’t enough to convince them I was alive by their own procedures.”

After studying up on the topic, Cesal found an obscure caveat that stated the SSA would accept a written prescription by a doctor as proof that he was “a living, breathing person,” he says. “Doctors don’t write those anymore, but I finally convinced one to write me a prescription for ibuprofen.”

Craig Cesal at the White House
Craig Cesal continues to campaign for cannabis prisoner justice reform.

The Legal Cannabis Conundrum

In 2019, Illinois became the 11th state to legalize cannabis for adult use, a year before Cesal was in home confinement during the pandemic. He recalls his first encounter with a legal dispensary.

“I had permission to leave the house for two-hour stints once a week with the GPS tag on my ankle,” he says. “Once, I had to go to a doctor’s appointment in Chicago. So, I’m walking down the street and I stopped right in front of a cannabis dispensary. I watched all these people walking in and watched them walk out again carrying bags. I wanted to ask them, ‘Is marijuana really legal?’ ‘What’s this thing on my ankle?’ Because if I went in there and bought cannabis, I’d violate my supervised release and get sentenced once again.”

Adult use cannabis is part of a convoluted system, Cesal says, with multiple legal traps and pitfalls. “Even in the states that they call marijuana legal, it’s not. Illinois is putting more people in prison for cannabis distribution now than before they legalized it. Why?” he asks.

“You’re only allowed to possess up to 30 grams of weed, and you’re only allowed to sell under certain conditions,” Cesal says. “Many people think that since it’s being bought and sold in these dispensaries, they can go grow and sell the plant, too. So, they grow some marijuana in the backyard. Next thing, they’ve got a pound of marijuana sitting on the seat, get pulled over by the police and are doing five years in prison the very next day. Sadly, a lot of people get trapped by that. In fact, one of the people I’m representing is sentenced to life imprisonment in California for cannabis—and he’s been in ten years already. And there are cannabis stores everywhere in California.”

Craig Cesal: Changemaker 

Today, Cesal is a very busy man. When he’s not working to obtain clemency for prisoners, help rewrite state laws, assist former felons to reintegrate into society or go to speak at the White House, he says he’s trying to unify a still-fractured cannabis industry.

He says he believes the current laws aren’t conducive to the industry and that the only way change at a federal level will ever happen is through cooperation and collaboration. “I’m hoping to unite the cannabis community,” he says. “We need to work together to get these odious laws changed.”

Craig Cesal doesn’t do the work for glory or fame. He simply does it because it needs to be done. And he’s the man to do it.

Visit to learn more about their advocacy work or donate to help other cannabis prisoners on their path to freedom. You can also email Craig Cesal directly at

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House Lawmakers Reintroduce Bipartisan Cannabis Expungement Bill

Two House lawmakers this week reintroduced bipartisan legislation to support states that enact policies to expunge convictions for past cannabis offenses. The bill, the Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungement (HOPE) Act, was introduced on Wednesday by Republican Representative Dave Joyce of Ohio and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York.

If passed, the HOPE Act would provide federal grants to help states with the financial and administrative burden of expunging past convictions for marijuana-related offenses. The bill was previously introduced in 2021 but failed to be scheduled for a hearing or a vote in the previous Congress. The lawmakers behind the bill, who have been vocal advocates of cannabis policy reform at the federal level, said that expunging records can help reduce the lasting impact of a conviction for a minor criminal offense.

“The vast majority of petty, non-violent cannabis law violations take place on the state and local level, precluding millions of Americans from fundamental opportunities such as housing and employment,” Joyce said in a statement. “As both a former public defender and prosecutor, I understand firsthand how these barriers can negatively impact families and economic growth in Ohio and across the nation. The HOPE Act works to remove those barriers in a bipartisan manner to pave the way for the American Dream and remedy the unjust war on cannabis.

The legislation would provide up to $20 million in federal grants over 10 years to state and local governments to clear records of past marijuana convictions. Funding could be used to implement technology to clear large amounts of records automatically, clinics to assist individuals eligible for expungement, notification systems to inform people when their records have been cleared, administrative costs to seal records, and partnerships to assist with expunge records at scale.

“As we continue to advocate for the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana, this bipartisan bill will provide localities the resources they need to expunge drug charges that continue to hold back Americans, disproportionately people of color, from employment, housing and other opportunity,” said Ocasio-Cortez.

Brian Vicente, founding partner of the cannabis law firm Vicente LLP, said that the legislation complements an executive order issued by President Joseph Biden last year that pardoned all federal convictions for simple cannabis possession. At the time, the president called on governors to take similar action at the state level and wrote on Twitter that “Sending people to jail for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives — for conduct that is legal in many states.”

“The HOPE Act is true to its name. Its reintroduction by the ‘odd-couple’ of liberal Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and conservative Rep. Joyce shows the world that bipartisan support for marijuana reform exists at the highest level of government,” Vicente wrote in an email to High Times. “It reinforces the fact that key members of Congress agree with the majority of the American public—adults who use marijuana should not face criminal sanctions. This bill would put some real teeth behind President Biden’s 2022 declared interest in pardoning people with federal marijuana convictions by providing significant funding to state programs to expunge state-level marijuana offenses.”

The reintroduction of the HOPE Act drew quick praise from activists and cannabis industry representatives including the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and the National Cannabis Roundtable, a trade group that advocates for continued cannabis policy reform.

“The HOPE Act promises just that: hope and a second chance for people suffering the lifelong consequences of a state-level marijuana possession arrest,” NORML political director Morgan Fox said in a statement. “As more states repeal their failed policies of criminalizing marijuana consumers, it is incumbent upon Congress to assist them in repairing the associated harms it helped perpetuate for decades. This legislation is a great step toward righting the wrongs caused by prohibition and improving the lives of millions of people nationwide.”

Saphira Galoob, executive director of the National Cannabis Roundtable, said that “only through expungements can we lift the barriers on employment, education, and housing opportunities for those who have already been unjustly harmed by federal prohibition. With cannabis programs now in 38 states, to continue to hold back and punish individuals for what is now a state-legal activity is the definition of unjust, and NCR thanks U.S. Representatives Joyce and Ocasio-Cortez for their efforts to have Congress help correct these wrongs at long last.”

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Layzie Bone on New Mixtape, Legacy, and Expungement

Just in time for the holiday, Layzie Bone—a living legend as a founding member of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony—is dropping Smoke With Me Vol. 1 on April 20, a new mixtape composed entirely of weed-themed tracks, which is free to download. Smoke With Me is one of the highly anticipated projects Layzie will be producing this year, released under his private label Harmony Howse Entertainment

Layzie, born Steven Howse and also called L-Burna, recalls the early days when gangsta rap went fully mainstream: Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s debut full-length album E. 1999 Eternal topped the Billboard Hot 100, going beyond the hip-hop and R&B charts. They topped the charts several more times in the following years. Perhaps more impressive than their often-duplicated rat-a-tat rapping style was their vocal range, creating a natural harmony.

How did this all start? About 30 years ago, N.W.A. had outgrown itself, and group members had moved on to discovering new talent instead. Eazy-E gave his last final parting gift to the world before dying of AIDS: the discovery of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Who could forget the heavy rotation “Tha Crossroads” video received, their way of mourning Eazy-E. MTV called them “the most melodic hip-hop group of all time.” Layzie’s older brother Flesh-n-Bone and cousin Wish Bone, a baritone, joined as well. Most of us know the rest of the story.

Now Layzie is the mentor, blazing the way for younger artists who are following on the same path. As a lifetime smoker and familiar with history, he reminds us that “America was built on marijuana.” He’s also trying to expunge his own record. In 1999, for instance, U.S. Marshals arrested Layzie in his home on warrants for federal cannabis-related charges.

“I got something called Birthday Cake right here, man,” Layzie says as he hits a vape pen and exhales a large cloud that fills the room during our interview. “My homeboy’s brand called Jumbo Joose, you know? I usually vape it up early in the day.”

Bone Thugs-N-Harmony were as closely associated with weed for a reason: They churned out many cannabis anthems like “Buddha Lovas,” “Weed Song,” “Budsmokers Only,” “Blaze It,” “Weedman,” etc. With multiple eras of weed songs, where does one even start?

Now there are more songs to add to the group’s already-large weed song repertoire. Layzie, along with Wish Bone, Krayzie Bone, Bizzy Bone, and Flesh-n-Bone, performed at the 2018 Amsterdam Cannabis Cup. Layzie begins by saying he “always got time for High Times.”

High Times: As you know 420 is coming up and word on the street is that you’re dropping a new mixtape Smoke With Me Vol. 1? Can you tell me a couple of the highlights that we can expect on this upcoming mixtape?

Layzie Bone: I mean, well, you know, it’s heavily featured with my brothers, you know what I’m saying? We got so many weed songs already out but more that the world haven’t heard yet. So I’m really excited about a few songs that I got with my bomb brothers that didn’t make projects in the past that we revised. So I’m happy, I’m happy to be able to give the world something new from Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. But um, you know, it’s all this on the weed tip. So you know, man it’s just a stone cold groove. You know, I mean, I, it’s hard to put into words. It’s relaxing. It’s exciting. And it’s just, it’s just the way you feel off a great sativa. You know?

Photo courtesy of Harmony Howse Entertainment.

Are there any special guests on this mixtape? Do you want to mention any by name?

Like I said, it’s really just about those in Harmony. You know what I mean? I would like to leave a few guests that I have as a surprise, but it’s a few surprises on there, you know, vocally-wise. But really, I’m really excited about what I got coming from Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, I think we got some, I think we got some harmonious songs that we’re really going to appreciate.

As I understand, you’re going to be performing live on April 20. Is it true that you’re going to be performing with Ice Cube?

Oh, yeah, absolutely. Man, our New Mexico show will be with Ice Cube. We gettin’ it in, man. Also we got a few shows coming up with Ice Cube specifically on 420 this year, we definitely hitting the stage with Cube, a host of other acts as well. It’s a really big show. So yeah, man, we’re gonna spend this year with you.

It’s been 30 years since Eazy-E signed you guys up—we have all heard the story. Back then he was a mentor, but now you’re the mentor. So tell me how it feels to be stepping into those shoes of being a mentor.

Wow. I mean, I’ve always had younger artists have been to me and, and sort of mentored them to, you know, through their careers and, you know, my, my younger generation, my brothers and most of my family. And, you know, now being with Sakoya [Wynter, daughter of K-Ci & JoJo’s JoJo Hailey] mentoring her, you know, it’s, I think it’s something that’s just natural for you to reach back and, and help those that need guidance, you know, that to help people not make the same mistakes that I’ve made, just to smoothen out the playing field and make it easier for the next generation. I think that’s a natural thing for me.

So Logic just recorded a cover of “Weed Song.” Can you tell me what’s one or two of your favorite cannabis anthems of all time?

Well, probably up there. Top three would probably include Bone Thug-N-Harmony’s “Buddha Lovas.” We saw the “Weed Song” one that Logic just did over and Smoke with Me, this new one that I’m about to put out is really gonna be revolutionary on weed songs you know that will take you there—like a weed-mushroom high. I will say Bone Thugs-N-Harmony by far for weed songs’ top three. You know Missy, […]. Scarface got a weed song that is called “Smoke with Me” as well. So you know, Scarface man I go back with the old school. Snoop’s got a lot. All of Snoop’s songs pertain to weed with numerous references. Just that whole album The Chronic—you could smoke too, you know I’m saying, like with him and Dr Dre. So that was the one that was the beginning of—not the beginning but when we really [started] making weed songs. So yeah man I just listen to anything Snoop Dogg, Cypress Hill, and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Those are the songs I usually gravitate to.

And so are you going to be releasing Smoke With Me Vol. 1 on Harmony Howse Entertainment?

Yeah, Harmony Howse Entertainment. That’s my imprint. That’s my entertainment company. And yes, absolutely. It’d be released on Harmony Howse—probably distributed to TuneCore. And yeah, man, I’m looking forward to it. Smoke With Me Vol. 1 is off the hook. Like my whole theme of this album is you know, everybody has a favorite holiday, which mine is these days, 420. It used to be Christmas and I used to love to listen to all the Christmas music and enjoy the holidays with my family and you know and feel that nostalgia. Nowadays it’s 420 with the weed becoming you know, [mainstream]. I’m putting these weed songs out to become the foundation for that holiday for songs to be played for years to come.

Can you tell us a little bit about Harmony Howse for those of us who don’t know?

The Harmony House, first of all. My last name is Howse. You know anybody doing business with me knows me as Stephen Howse. And so Howse is my brand, my family brand. And Harmony Howse consists of Rocky Rock, [Big] Sloan, my children and […] Trinity, Dice. You know, I’ve got a few artists on there that I represent in Harmony Howse, really derived from when I had most of the records back in the ’90s. So I felt like most of the records, you know, when when the industry changed over, I felt like the records thing was gone—like it was really no more records. So I felt like reviving my company into an entertainment company, to where you know, I’m not just doing music, but you know, taking, doing all my content myself trying to get into my movies and things like that just becoming a full-fledged entertainment company. So yeah, that’s what Harmony Howse is. It is another branch off the Bone Thugs-N-Harmony legacy, you know.

Courtesy of Layzie Bone.

“… When I was coming up, you know, I caught cases for marijuana. It’s things that I’m trying to get expunged.” – Layzie Bone

Does cannabis enhance creativity in the studio? Because some people use it as a reward after work and some people work and get high at the same time.

Yeah, I will say for me it’s an enhancement of creativity. It really depends on you know, what cannabis you choose at the time. You know as for myself [I smoke] before I start my sessions I like to smoke a little bit and and I prefer a sativa when I’m being creative, you know what I mean? Like if I’m watching the movie or chilling at home and just relaxing or reading prefer like an indica but on the creative side, I definitely blaze before, during, and after but I prefer sativa when I’m recording and when I’m creating.

Those heavy strains can slow you down.

They slow you down, put you to sleep, you know, relaxation type of vibe, but the sativas for some reason, keep me up.

You guys have been sending the message about weed when it was still taboo. But that was over 30 years ago. How things changed for you since then

I mean, well, I’m just so free with it. These days, I forget, sometimes I go somewhere and weed is illegal. You know, but back in my days, when I was coming up, you know, I caught cases for marijuana. It’s things that I’m trying to get expunged, because of marijuana cases and things like that. So it’s totally different man. It’s like back then, you had to hide. You had to, you know, go to the moon to smoke a joint. But now you could be out anywhere in California, you can basically blaze up, bam, you’re anywhere. So do you know, that’s the big difference, the freedom of it, like, you don’t have to watch over your shoulder looking for the police like he used to.

And, you know, it’s interesting that you bring up expungement because, you know, so that’s something that has affected you personally. Because on one hand, you have people selling cannabis, but at the same time, there’s still people that are sitting in jail right now for it. So how does it feel to you since you’ve been personally affected by the War on Drugs?

I mean, I just feel like it’s America, you know what I mean? Like America is, how do I explain it, America. You know, it’s legal one minute then illegal, the next minute. Some might thrive off the situation. Some might be stereotyped and, you know, condemned because of [it]. It’s this melting pot that we live in, you know what I mean? Like, I think it’s totally unfair. You know, I think everybody should be able to get their records expunged when it comes to marijuana, you know, but it’s just totally unfair, you know, I mean, I’m fighting that fight myself, too. So there’s this place called America and you never know what’s wrong or right and how things may turn out. So, you know, it’s a tricky situation, man, and I just, I wish the best for I hope that we can get it right. You know, if we’re allowed to make money off of it now, though, people should be let out of jail and, you know, not not taboo to where they can’t work and things like that. So you know, it’s a tricky situation.

They’re starting to pave the way to clear some minor convictions at the federal level now. I mean, it doesn’t help everybody out. It’s only those minor convictions but you know, baby steps.

Right. Absolutely. Yeah. Over time it will happen, you know, this concept was still new. You know, America was built on marijuana too. So you know, it was common to grow marijuana farms you know, I read up on all that too. So no, I think it’s going back to where it started. Everything goes full circle, right?

We got 420 coming up. Do you have any other announcements? 

Like I said we got my 420 mixtape Smoke With Me, it’d be out this holiday. It’s a free mixtape you can download for free—something that I want to give away to my fans because I do have an album following that and another mixtape, the album is called Hypnotic Rhythms. Be on the lookout for that man, Hypnotic Rhythms is just really just good music, good vibes, and a lot more smoke going on. You know, and then I have another mixtape called Too Easy, which is songs with my younger peers. I’ve taken our music and remixed them in so many different ways. So I’m just jumping on what they did now. So I got a few projects that’s coming in over the next couple of months. Follow me at @TheRealLayzieBone on IG and @TheOfficialLayzieBone on Facebook. You know, you can get all my information from there, but I do have projects coming out. And, you know, I’m just asking my fans to look out for them and bump that mixtape, it’s free.

Thanks for having me. Always got time for High Times.

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Connecticut Prosecutors Drop 1,500 Cannabis Charges

Connecticut’s chief prosecutor announced last week that state’s attorneys have dismissed more than 1,500 pending cannabis-related criminal cases involving offenses that are no longer against the law. In a letter sent to a Connecticut legislative committee on March 31, Chief State’s Attorney Patrick J. Griffin reported that prosecutors had reviewed more than 4,000 pending drug possession cases and dropped the charges for 1,562 of them.

In June 2021, Connecticut lawmakers passed legislation to legalize personal quantities of marijuana and to regulate commercial cannabis production and sales. The possession provisions went into effect one month later, and dispensaries began regulated sales of recreational marijuana in December 2022. 

The legalization statute also included provisions for the expungement of past cannabis-related convictions in cases involving up to four ounces of cannabis. In January, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont announced he had “erased 42,964 cannabis convictions” as a result of the legislation. But the expungement provisions did not explicitly clear charges for pending marijuana possession cases, a point that was later clarified by lawmakers. 

“The legislature made clear to the Division of Criminal Justice that it intended for the new cannabis laws to apply to people who had charges pending on the date the law went into effect,” Griffin said in a statement cited by CTInsider. “Understanding the intent of the legislature, the division undertook an expedited review of its files to respect the legislature’s wishes. The state’s attorneys and their offices should be commended for their efforts and their commitment to addressing these cases in such a timely manner.”

More Than 4,000 Pending Drug Possession Cases Reviewed

The charges dropped by prosecutors represent cases that were pending when the legalization bill went into effect. In addition to the 1,562 dropped charges, about 600 more that involved multiple charges were modified to remove cannabis charges from the case. Griffin reported to lawmakers that his office had to review each of more than 4,000 pending cases individually, citing state law that combines cannabis with other controlled substances such as heroin and cocaine.

“It has been the shared position of this committee and the division that persons charged with a possession of a cannabis-type substance offense that has subsequently been decriminalized should not be prosecuted for that offense,” Griffin wrote in his letter to lawmakers last week. “Thus, identifying these cannabis cases could not be accomplished merely by conducting a computerized review of pending cases.” 

“This was no small task and quite labor intensive,” he added.

Griffin sent his letter to the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, which was last week considering a new bill directing state’s attorneys to end prosecutions for cannabis possession cases. The bill, HB-6787, also creates a process for automatic sentence modification of all eligible marijuana convictions identified by prosecutorial officials and instructs courts to determine if release or sentence modification is warranted. The measure was approved by the panel by a vote of 27-10, although Representative Steve Stafstrom, the co-chair of the committee, said that the bill is likely to be amended as it continues through the legislative process.

“This clears up confusion that may have been created under the legalization-of-cannabis process, whereby certain offenses that were pending before cannabis legalization remained pending even after that legislation was adopted,” Stafstrom said on March 31. “I want to specifically thank the office of the Chief State’s Attorney, who I know heard the concerns, the bipartisan concerns of this committee at the public hearing in terms of getting those cases dismissed.”

Connecticut Activists Applaud Dropped Charges

Griffin’s move to drop the pending marijuana cases was warmly received by cannabis policy reform advocates including Paul Armentano, the deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

“Hundreds of thousands of Americans unduly carry the burden and stigma of a past conviction for behavior that most Americans, and a growing number of states, no longer consider to be a crime,” Armentano said in a statement from the cannabis policy reform group. “Our sense of justice and our principles of fairness demand that public officials and the courts move swiftly to right the past wrongs of cannabis prohibition and criminalization.”

Sarah Gersten, executive director and general counsel of the Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to securing the release of all cannabis prisoners, praised Griffin’s move and urged lawmakers to approve HB-6787.

“We applaud Chief State’s Attorney Patrick Griffin for dismissing more than 1,500 pending cannabis cases and modifying approximately 600 others. This announcement marks a tremendous step towards achieving justice in Connecticut,” Gersten wrote in an email to High Times. “However, HB-6787’s passage is still crucial to ensure those currently incarcerated have the same opportunity to have their sentences reviewed and potentially terminated. It is unconscionable that some in Connecticut remain incarcerated for cannabis while others are profiting from the exact same activity.”

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Weed Legalization Bill Introduced in North Carolina

Seven Democratic lawmakers in North Carolina are sponsoring a bill that would legalize recreational cannabis in the state, and expunge past marijuana-related offenses.

The legislation, which was introduced in the state Senate last week, follows another proposal in the state to legalize medical cannabis.

If it were to pass, the recreational pot bill would legalize marijuana for adults aged 21 and older, and also “enact a 20% state tax on the sale [of marijuana], and municipalities would be able to enact another 3% tax,” according to local news station WSOC.

Per the station, the tax revenue from marijuana sales would be divided up as follows: “25% to a Community Reinvestment and Repair Fund created by the bill; 10% to a Social Equity Fund created by the bill; 3% to a Cannabis Education and Technical Assistance Fund created by the bill; 7% to the Department of Health and Human Services for evidence-based, voluntary programs for substance abuse treatment or prevention; 2% to the DHHS for a public education campaign for youth and adults about the health and safety risks of alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, and other substances, including driving while impaired; 2% to the DHHS for cannabis research.

Up to 1% to the Department of Public Safety for advanced impaired driving enforcement and drug recognition training; The remaining 50% of the tax revenue would go to the general fund.”

The bill also provides for individuals to have previous pot-related convictions expunged from their records.

“If a person was charged with an offense involving marijuana or hashish that is legal under Chapter 18D of the General Statutes, and such person was convicted, such conviction shall be ordered to be automatically expunged no later than July 1, 2026, in the manner set forth in this section,” the legislation reads.

North Carolina is one of the last remaining states where neither recreational nor medical marijuana is legal.

Late last month, the North Carolina state Senate approved a bill that would legalize medical cannabis treatment for individuals with qualifying conditions such as cancer, ALS, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), among others.

The state’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, has pushed lawmakers in North Carolina to reform its cannabis laws.

In October, following President Joe Biden’s pardon to individuals with federal marijuana convictions, Cooper called for the decriminalization of pot in North Carolina.

“Conviction of simple possession can mar people’s records for life and maybe even prevent them from getting a job,” Cooper said at the time.

“North Carolina should take steps to end this stigma,” the governor added.

In his announcement of the pardons, Biden urged “all Governors to do the same with regard to state offenses.”

“As I often said during my campaign for President, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana. Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit. Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. And while white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates,” Biden said in a statement at the time.

“Federal law currently classifies marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, the classification meant for the most dangerous substances.  This is the same schedule as for heroin and LSD, and even higher than the classification of fentanyl and methamphetamine – the drugs that are driving our overdose epidemic,” Biden added.

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Cannabis Expungement Law Takes Effect in D.C.

The measure that was approved by the Council of the District of Columbia late last year mandates an “automatic sealing for non-dangerous, non-convictions as well as shorten the waiting periods before a person is eligible to seal their record,” and “would also expand the eligibility of who can seal their record.” The bill was signed by Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser in January, but its enactment was delayed due to an arcane part of lawmaking in our nation’s capital. 

Laws in D.C. are subject to congressional oversight and approval––a stipulation that has prevented the district from implementing legal marijuana sales, despite the fact that voters there legalized cannabis back in 2014.

After Bowser signed the cannabis expungement measure in January, the bill was transmitted to Congress. As NORML explained, all “legislation must undergo a 30-day Congressional review prior to becoming law,” and absent a Congressional intervention, the bill will then become law.

That moment is now––or rather, on March 10, when the law officially took effect.

NORML has more on the new law:

“The Act provides for the automatic review and expungement of any convictions or citations specific to marijuana-related offenses that have subsequently been decriminalized or legalized in the District of Columbia, as well as any ‘records related only to simple possession for any quantity of marijuana in violation of D.C. Code § 48-904.01(d)(1) before February 15, 2015.’ It requires all cannabis-specific expungements to be processed by the courts by January 1, 2025.”

Paul Armentano, the deputy director of NORML, hailed the new law.

“Thousands of DC residents unduly carry the burden and stigma of a past conviction for behavior that District lawmakers, most Americans, and a growing number of states, no longer consider to be a crime,” Armenato said. “Our sense of justice and our principles of fairness demand that the courts move swiftly to right the past wrongs of cannabis prohibition and criminalization.”

In 2021, it appeared that legal cannabis sales might finally be coming to Washington, D.C.

That’s because Senate Democrats at the time introduced a draft of an appropriations bill that did not include the so-called “Harris Rider,” a budget rider named for Republican Congressman Andy Harris of Maryland that had appeared in every such bill since 2014.

The Harris Rider has precluded Washington, D.C. from engaging in legal commercial marijuana sales. 

At the time, Bowser celebrated the rider’s apparent exclusion from the proposed bill.

“The Senate appropriations bill is a critical step in recognizing that in a democracy, D.C. residents should be governed by D.C. values,” Bowser’s office said at the time. “As we continue on the path to D.C. statehood, I want to thank Senate Appropriations Committee Chair, Senator Patrick Leahy, our good friend and Subcommittee Chair, Senator Chris Van Hollen, and, of course, our champion on the Hill, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, for recognizing and advancing the will of D.C. voters. We urge Congress to pass a final spending bill that similarly removes all anti-Home Rule riders, allowing D.C. to spend our local funds as we see fit.”

Activist groups pressured Democrats in Congress to hold firm and ditch the Harris Rider.

“In one hand, Congress continues to make strides in advancing federal marijuana reform grounded in racial justice, while simultaneously being responsible for prohibiting the very jurisdiction that led the country in legalizing marijuana through this lens from being able to regulate it. This conflict and contradiction must end now,” Queen Adesuyi, Senior National Policy Manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement last year.

But it was not to be.

The appropriations bill that ultimately emerged last year included the Harris Rider.

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Justice Department Launches Expungement Application

The time is now to expedite the process and get proof of pardon for low-level federal cannabis convictions that no longer stand today yet still haunt individuals, sometimes decades later. According to a March 3 announcement, the U.S. Department of Justice is launching the application to make the expungement process easier for people with low-level federal cannabis convictions. 

For people who are interested, you’ll need to gather personal details like name, mailing address, email address, and citizenship status. You’ll also need to know the docket or case number and the code section that was charged, and provide copies of documentation, such as charging documents (indictment, complaint, or criminal information) or conviction documents. It’s also important to know the exact date the sentence was imposed.

Pardons for low-level cannabis convictions were promised by President Joe Biden last October.

“Today, the Justice Department is launching an application for eligible individuals to receive certificate of proof that they were pardoned under the Oct. 6, 2022, proclamation by President Biden,” the department wrote on March 3. 

“On Oct. 6, 2022, the President announced a full, unconditional and categorical pardon for prior federal and D.C. offenses of simple possession of marijuana. The President’s pardon lifts barriers to housing, employment and educational opportunities for thousands of people with those prior convictions. President Biden directed the Justice Department to develop a process for individuals to receive their certificate of pardon.”

The Application for Certificate of Pardon will be available on the Office of the Pardon Attorney’s website. People with eligible cases may submit documentation to the Office of the Pardon Attorney and receive a certificate indicating the person was pardoned on Oct. 6, 2022, for simple possession of cannabis.

The President’s pardon can assist pardoned cases by removing civil or legal penalties such as restrictions on the right to vote, to hold office, or to sit on a jury.

The process makes getting proof of pardon quite a bit easier for people seeking to obtain licenses, bonds, or employment. President Biden said last October that the point of pardoning low-level cannabis convictions is to “help relieve the consequences arising from these convictions.” 

In order to be eligible for a certificate, an applicant must have been charged or convicted of simple possession of cannabis in either a federal court or D.C. Superior Court, and the applicant must have legally resided the United States at the time of the offense. In addition, an individual must have been a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident on Oct. 6, 2022.

Those who were convicted of state-level cannabis offenses do not qualify for the pardon.

In a historic move on October 6, 2022, Biden announced that he will pardon people with federal convictions for simple possession of cannabis, and announced that he will direct the U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland and Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra to begin the process of reviewing the classification of cannabis at the federal level.

The White House statement noted that under current federal law, cannabis falls under Schedule I alongside deadly drugs like fentanyl. The White House will  “review expeditiously” the plant’s current classification.

“As I’ve said before, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana,” Biden tweeted. “Today, I’m taking steps to end our failed approach. Allow me to lay them out.”

For more information about determining eligibility and to find answers to frequently asked questions, visit Presidential Proclamation on Marijuana Possession.

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Alaska Courts Clear Past Cannabis Convictions From State Database

The Alaska Supreme Court will clear the records of about 750 cannabis convictions from a state database in a move to help protect past offenders from the negative impact of a criminal record for conduct that’s no longer against the law. Under an order signed by the court’s five justices in January, records of past marijuana offenses will be removed from Courtview, the state’s online database of court cases, on May 1.

The court’s action continues the push to expunge convictions for cannabis-related offenses in states that have legalized marijuana in an attempt to mitigate the harms caused by years of cannabis prohibition and the War on Drugs. The order applies to cases in which the defendant was at least 21 years old, and possession of up to one ounce of cannabis was the only charge.

Legislative attempts by lawmakers to remove cannabis convictions from Courtview have so far been unsuccessful, although bills are pending for the current legislative session. The action by the Supreme Court largely accomplishes the goal, but the new policy doesn’t remove the records of cannabis-related convictions from all state databases. Attorney Jana Weltzin said the move is a positive development for cannabis policy reform efforts in Alaska.

“If you’re older than 21 and you violated simple marijuana possession—meaning marijuana under an ounce—and you had it on your person, and it’s not connected with any other crime, then the Supreme Court of Alaska says we’re removing those from Courtview,” Weltzin told local media.

Nancy Meade, general counsel for the Alaska Court System, said that the change originated with administrative staff and was considered by the justices through the Supreme Court’s normal procedures.

“Given that (cannabis) has been legal for eight years, it appeared to the Supreme Court that this was an appropriate time not to have people, as I say, suffer the negative consequences that can stem from having your name posted on Courtview,” Meade said in a statement quoted by the Alaska Beacon. “Because the conduct is considered legal right now,” she said.

Court’s Order Doesn’t Affect All Conviction Records

The decision by the Supreme Court doesn’t expunge past cannabis convictions from the state’s criminal records, which are maintained by the Alaska Department of Public Safety (DPS). Officials clarified that information on such convictions would still be available at courthouses for inspection by members of the public and through formal background checks.

“The court system isn’t the official criminal record repository for the state of Alaska,” Meade said.

Records of arrests and convictions can have an impact on the ability of past offenders to secure employment and housing. But past legislative efforts to remove cannabis conviction records from Courtview haven’t been approved by lawmakers.

“A lot of folks in my district, they have these barriers that are put in place, and a simple rule change, policy change, legislation, could change it for their entire lives,” said Republican state Rep. Stanley Wright.

Last year, the Alaska House of Representatives approved a bill to conceal cannabis convictions from Courtview and criminal background searches by a vote of 30-8. The state Senate, however, failed to pass the bill before the end of the 2022 legislative session. A similar bill to shield cannabis convictions was pre-filed for the 2023 session by Wright on January 19, less than two weeks before the Supreme Court’s decision to remove the records from Courtview. Forrest Wolfe, Wright’s chief of staff, said that shielding the records of cannabis convictions can help mitigate the exodus of working-age people in Alaska that has in part led to a labor shortage in the state.

“It’s all about reducing barriers to entry, especially for employment,” Wolfe said. “In Alaska, we have a huge workforce shortage. If you were 21 years old or older, and it was some sort of a nonviolent crime, you were charged with and convicted of, now that cannabis is legal in the state, we don’t think it should be reflected negatively on your record,” Wolfe added.

Wright is reportedly considering whether his bill, which already has bipartisan support from three Democrats and two independent lawmakers, is still needed after the Supreme Court order to remove cannabis convictions from Courtview, while Democratic Sen. Löki Tobin is reportedly considering introducing a similar bill. Unlike the Supreme Court’s policy, which only covers court records, more comprehensive legislation could also protect information on cannabis convictions from being released through criminal background checks. If Wright’s bill is passed, up to 8,500 past cannabis convictions could be affected and hidden from view, according to information from the DPS.

The Alaska Supreme Court has a history of handing down decisions that have protected the rights of cannabis users. In 1975, the court ruled that the right to privacy guaranteed in the Alaska Constitution protects the possession and use of small amounts of marijuana in private residences, effectively legalizing cannabis for personal use.

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Over 7,500 Pot Convictions Expunged in Missouri

More than 7,500 individuals in Missouri have had their prior marijuana-related convictions expunged with recreational cannabis now legal in the state.

The expungement is the latest byproduct of the constitutional amendment that was approved by Missouri voters last fall, which legalized pot for adults and cleared the way for Missourians to have their records cleared.

According to the Riverfront Times, passage of Amendment 3 “kick-started a process to expunge criminal records related to nonviolent marijuana offenses that otherwise would have been legal had Amendment 3 always been a part of Missouri’s constitution.”

“The majority of expunged convictions so far are misdemeanors. As of [last] Tuesday, courts have granted 6,121 expungements for misdemeanors related to nonviolent cannabis offenses that did not involve selling to minors or driving under the influence of cannabis. More than 1,200 felony convictions have also been expunged,” the publication reported.

Dan Viets, secretary of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws who helped author the state’s medical and recreational cannabis laws, told the Riverfront Times that the process is “going faster” than he expected.

That has become a recurring theme for the Show Me State’s rollout of the new marijuana law.

Legal recreational pot sales launched on February 6, which was earlier than anticipated.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported at the time that the nascent cannabis industry expected “that the licenses required to sell non-medical cannabis would not be issued by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services until [days later].” 

The launch of legal weed sales came only a month after the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services said that it was finalizing rules for the new adult-use cannabis program.

“Once rules are effective, DHSS will begin approving or denying requests from licensed medical marijuana facilities to convert to comprehensive facilities, which can serve both medical and adult-use consumers. After conversion, sales to adult-use consumers may begin as soon as comprehensive dispensary facilities are ready to commence operating under their new authority. Also per Amendment 3 to Article XIV, DHSS will begin accepting applications for consumer personal cultivation by Feb. 6. Once approved, this will allow authorized persons, who are at least 21 years of age, to grow plants for personal, non-commercial use within an enclosed locked facility at their residence,” the department said in a January bulletin.

But as in other states that have lifted the prohibition on cannabis use, Missouri’s new law aims to redress previous wrongs inflicted by anti-pot laws.

According to the Riverfront Times, the newly passed amendment “established deadlines for when sentencing courts must expunge certain crimes.”

“One deadline is fast approaching — sentencing courts must complete adjudication for misdemeanors of people currently in prison or jail by March 8. But most deadlines to expunge other crimes are at least 3 1/2 months away,” the Times reported. “Circuit courts have until June 8 to order the expungement of criminal history records for all misdemeanor marijuana offenses of people no longer under the supervision of the Department of Corrections. And they have until December 8 to expunge criminal histories of people who already completed their sentences for felony marijuana offenses that are no longer crimes.”

“Questions about how Missouri’s court system could sustain the expected influx of expungement requests circulated before Amendment 3’s passage in November. In October, the Missouri Supreme Court requested almost $7 million to cover the cost of erasing eligible marijuana convictions. The Missouri Office of State Courts Administration also submitted a supplemental budget request asking for $2.5 million to cover clerks’ overtime and hire additional information technology staffers,” the publication continued

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University of Arizona Students Launch Expungement Clinic

Student advocates from the University of Arizona at the James E. Rogers School of Law in Tucson are personally taking action to help people clear records for low-level cannabis-related convictions. A series of expungement event dates are unfolding, and students say that the initial process to get records cleared is fast.

KGUN 9 reports that locals, including one with a charge dating back to 1976, are taking advantage of the school’s expungement program. Cannabis-related charges that old are still impacting employment and other opportunities.

Law school students including Mia Burcham and Rebecca Caro Cohen are helping people expunge their records at expungement clinics on campus. To do this, they look up disposition dates which they said are usually available through public access court records.

“It’s a great feeling when someone walks out with a cleared record. It could be pretty life-changing,” Burcham said.

Burcham also provides expungement training and calls for volunteers for help. The training covers the appropriate forms and process, as well as clinic expectations and tips for client interaction. 

The expungement process is relatively fast. According to Burcham and Cohen, people don’t even need an I.D. to get a record expunged. All they need to know is the date when they received the charge or arrest and where.

Some of the oldest charges, however, aren’t on any computer system and take longer to process. When that happens, petitioners seeking expungements must contact the court directly and ask for a records search. 

“We really hope when people come in that we’ll be able to get them out the door with a completed petition and so we aren’t able to do that which is frustrating,” Cohen said.

The next round of expungements is scheduled to take place on March 25 at the law school. They said if someone gets denied, they work with the Arizona Marijuana Expungement Coalition to provide free legal help to people.

If someone cannot make it to the University of Arizona clinic in Tuscon, they can visit this website to sign up for an expungement. It typically takes about one to two months total to find out whether someone got their record expunged.

Arizona residents with low-level cannabis convictions can have their records wiped clean under a state expungement program launched on July 13, 2021. The expungements for minor cannabis convictions are thanks to Proposition 207, the 2020 ballot initiative to legalize cannabis for adults 21 and older that was approved by 60% of Arizona voters.

Under the program, people with low-level convictions for possessing, transporting, or consuming 2.5 ounces or less of cannabis, of which no more than 12.5 grams can be a cannabis concentrate or extract, are eligible to have their records expunged. 

People with convictions for possessing, cultivating, processing, or transporting up to six cannabis plants at their primary residence can also apply to clear their records. Expungements can also be issued for convictions for possessing, using, or transporting paraphernalia related to the consumption, cultivation, and processing of cannabis.

People who are eligible for expungement are required to petition the courts to have their records cleared. Help is also available from other organizations including Minorities for Medical Marijuana (M4MM), which has been offering expungement clinics through its Project Clean Slate initiative.

Arizona’s most populous county took an early lead. The Superior Court of Arizona in Maricopa County granted 3,643 petitions for expungement of cannabis-related charges since the process started, according to an Aug. 30, 2021 press release.

Law students with the know-how are proving to be helpful in clearing records under Arizona’s expungement program.

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