Marijuana users who once ran into trouble in Connecticut will soon be able to put it behind them.
The state Supreme Court ruled March 16 that cannabis possession is now officially the legal equivalent of a parking ticket, following decriminalization of the drug in 2011. That, the court said, means people with marijuana convictions in the state can petition to clear their criminal records.
Menditto was convicted in 2009 on two counts of cannabis possession. After lawmakers decriminalized the drug, he petitioned the courts to overturn his convictions. The Supreme Court justices declined to do that, but they did rule that people convicted of minor marijuana offenses, like Menditto, may ask the lower courts to clear their records.
Differing understandings of ‘decriminalization’
The ruling overturned a 2013 decision by the state Appellate Court, which sided with prosecutors who wanted the convictions to remain. The two courts differed over the definition of “decriminalization.”
The lower court said the word means full legalization. A state law that allows people to wipe their records of offenses that have since been “decriminalized” wouldn’t apply to the cannabis law, the judges ruled, since that statute still levies civil fines for simple possession.
The state Supreme Court disagreed, however, noting that prosecutors had no legal basis for treating marijuana differently from a parking violation.
Civil infractions are no cause for a criminal record
“The legislature has determined that such violations are to be handled in the same manner as civil infractions, such as parking violations,” Justice Carmen Espinosa wrote in the 7-0 opinion. “The state has failed to suggest any plausible reason why erasure should be denied in such cases.”
Menditto, 31, is now working as a pro-marijuana activist, according to his lawyer, Aaron Romano. At the time of his arrest, he used the drug to treat medical issues, Romano said. But the lawyer declined to detail why Menditto used the treatment.
A criminal record may be the single worst outcome of a conviction, even on low-level marijuana charges. Serving a few days in jail or paying a fine isn’t such a big deal in itself; it’s the damage that happens later that turns lives upside down.
A criminal record can make it impossible to find a job. It can make it hard to rent an apartment, apply for government benefits or buy a car. It can lead to repeated harassment from the police.
A growing but still quiet movement is under way to change this reality for many thousands of people with criminal records. It’s part of a wider and increasingly successful push to reform the criminal justice system in America.
“It’s a topic multiple states will have to be facing,” Romano said. “Because marijuana is being decriminalized across the United States, this issue needs to be addressed.”