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Vermont House Approves Bill Granting Automatic Expungement

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The Vermont House of Representatives voted last week to approve a bill that would grant automatic expungement of low-level marijuana offenses while increasing the limits on the personal possession and cultivation of cannabis. 

Under the measure (S. 234), convictions recorded prior to January 2021 for possession of up to two ounces of marijuana would automatically be cleared from an offender’s criminal record. The bill would also grant automatic expungement for possession of up to four mature or eight immature cannabis plants.

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The bill allows Vermont courts until the end of next year to grant the expungements to qualified offenders. Those with records cleared by the automatic expungement process outlined by the measure would be notified by mail. Beginning in January 2021, those with convictions eligible for expungement would be able to legally state that they have not been convicted of a cannabis crime when filling out applications for jobs, licenses, or public benefits, even if they have not yet been notified that their record has been cleared.

Reducing The Consequences Of A Criminal Record

Republican Rep. Tom Burditt said before Friday’s virtual House vote that the bill would help address the collateral damage associated with criminal convictions, even for minor offenses.

“We have approximately 10,000 Vermonters who continue to struggle to live, work, find a house, raise their families and be productive members of society with that cloud of a past nonviolent low-level marijuana conviction hanging over their heads,” said Burditt. 

Referring to the racial disparity that has consistently plagued the enforcement of the nation’s drug laws, Burditt added that the bill is “also a critical component of the movement towards racial justice in cannabis policy.”

Because the reform of Vermont’s cannabis laws has been incremental, determining the severity of an offense cannot be accomplished by a cursory review of an offender’s record. Consequently, the bill also amends the state’s decriminalization laws to simplify the process.

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“There’s no way to tell if the conviction was for one joint, or just under two ounces by looking at the charges and convictions,” Burditt said.  “You’d have to go into each case file, often paper records in various agencies around the state, to locate the information and affidavit that alleges the amount possessed. That process is cumbersome, timely, and costly.”

Bill Also Increases Possession Limits

The bill also expands the decriminalization of cannabis in Vermont by removing criminal penalties for possession of between one and two ounces of marijuana. Instead of being treated as a misdemeanor crime, possession of such amounts would be assessed a civil fine of $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second, and $500 for each additional one. The measure also decriminalizes possession of up to three mature and six immature cannabis plants, an increase from two mature and four immature plants under current law.

The Vermont House passed the measure 113 to 10 in a preliminary vote on Friday. The state Senate approved a similar version of S. 234 in May. Before the bill can become law, the House must pass the measure again in a final vote expected later this week. The measure would then head back to the Senate for final passage and referral to Republican Gov. Phil Scott for his signature.

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