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Lawmakers consider proposals to 'seal' marijuana conviction records

FILE- In this Oct. 22, 2009 file photo, a bud of legally grown marijuana is held by a cancer patient, in Portland, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
FILE- In this Oct. 22, 2009 file photo, a bud of legally grown marijuana is held by a cancer patient, in Portland, Maine.

State lawmakers are considering several bills that would make it easier for people with old, marijuana convictions to make those records confidential.

Recreational use of marijuana has been legal in Maine since 2017. But old convictions for marijuana use or possession still haunt residents when they apply for jobs, housing or other benefits. Advocates for de-criminalization and criminal justice reform also point out that Black individuals and other minorities are disproportionately impacted by that legal disconnect because those communities were often targeted more heavily by law enforcementn under the previous drug laws.

One proposal considered Friday by the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, LD 2269, would automatically seal or make confidential marijuana-related convictions between 2001 and 2017. Maine currently allows individuals to petition to have their records sealed. A less sweeping bill,LD 2236, would allow more people to apply to have their old marijuana convictions sealed by expanding the list of qualifying offenses.

Matt Morgan, an attorney who serves as president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told lawmakers that the strongly supports the measures.

"These bills are basically premised on an idea of fairness that something that we now recognize is not a crime is not something that people should be labeled as criminals for," Morgan said.

But the Maine Press Association opposes automatically sealing criminal records. Instead, Judith Meyer, who serves as executive editor of the Lewiston Sun Journal, the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel, said the press association believes Maine's current process of allowing individuals to request to seal their records balances privacy with the public's right to access records on criminal proceedings.

A representative for Maine's judicial branch also raised serious concerns about how the court system could logistically carry out the process of automatically sealing marijuana convictions, given that many convictions are only listed by drug class not by the name of the substance. As a result, court staff would have to look back through paper files to see whether a conviction was for marijuana or another drug within that classification.