Marijuana possession has been partially decriminalized in Missouri since 2017, but a number of residents continue to have Kansas City marijuana convictions on their criminal records.
Those convictions can present barriers. Even though Kansas City passed a municipal measure called “Ban the Box” in 2018, preventing employers or landlords from asking about a criminal record on initial applications, previous convictions make it difficult for thousands of people to find housing, employment or government assistance.
Those obstacles prompted Mayor Quinton Lucas to pardon some low-level marijuana convictions at the municipal level. The process is relatively easy, and Lucas said he hopes it can minimize the long-term consequences of a criminal record.
Those who wish to have their marijuana conviction pardoned can submit an application on the Kansas City government website. The application launched in March 2020, and it has received around 40 applicants so far.
How to get your Kansas City marijuana conviction pardoned
The mayor’s office only has the authority to pardon municipal offenses, so those who were convicted in a county or federal courthouse are ineligible. A quick way to find out where a conviction took place is to look at the case number. If it starts with G or N, that usually indicates a municipal offense.
A person who was convicted for a violent charge or for drug distribution can still apply for consideration, but the mayor’s office may or may not issue a pardon. Lucas has only promised to pardon low-level possession offenses.
Any charges above the municipal level would need to be expunged by a district judge. Though Lucas cannot offer expungement for these offenses, his office told The Beacon that staffers are hoping to plan expungement workshops to help people seal their records.
To apply for a pardon, the mayor’s office has created an online form that requires a few pieces of information.
Applicants must enter their case number, which can be found on their municipal conviction record. If an applicant no longer has a copy of their record, a request form can be submitted to the municipal court. Records of convictions that happened more than 15 years ago likely only exist in paper form and may take longer to retrieve.
Lucas says pardoning Kansas City marijuana offenses keeps legal system consistent
With legislators from both major political parties taking steps towards the legalization of adult use of marijuana in Missouri, some lawmakers have also proposed legislation to automatically expunge existing charges. Advocates believe this an important step in restoring civil liberties and rights for those who still face the consequences of harsh enforcement measures that accompanied the war on drugs.
A citizens’ ballot initiative to legalize adult use of marijuana also includes automatic expungement for marijuana offenses, meaning that these conviction records will be sealed to the public. The initiative’s backers are awaiting action from the Missouri secretary of state’s office to see if it will be placed on the ballot.
“In many ways throughout the country, we have changed the treatment of marijuana [offenses], and we need to make sure that we are consistent with those who’ve been through the system before,” Lucas said. “It is vital to make sure that we are allowing them not to be held back in future opportunities.”
Discrimination against those with a criminal record disproportionately affects people of color, who are more likely to be arrested for a marijuana offense.
In Cass County, Black people are almost five times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as a white person, and in Lafayette and Johnson counties in Missouri, they’re more than 10 times as likely to be arrested.
While awaiting further action from state government, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office said they want Kansas City’s municipal government to take action “as far and as strong” as possible without violating the state law.
“We can’t just say, ‘OK, everything’s good and marijuana is OK,’ but not look at the incredible harm that we did, particularly to the Black community, for generations,” Lucas said.
A mayoral pardon is more limited than expungement
Before marijuana was decriminalized in Kansas City, the legal consequences of a possession misdemeanor could include jail time or a fine. A pardon waives all outstanding fines, according to Lucas.
Fines that have already been paid are not reimbursed, though Lucas said he is open to exploring this option.
However, a pardon does not fully prevent someone from continuing to face the consequences of a municipal marijuana conviction in their careers or in housing.
Even with a pardon, a marijuana conviction will remain public record, open to possible background checks and inquiry. People will still be required to disclose their conviction if asked on an application. This is the case for those who live outside of Kansas City proper, where Ban the Box does not apply.
Lora McDonald, executive director of Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity (MORE2), said that a pardon is more symbolic than an expungement, and it doesn’t always make much of a material difference.
“Pardons don’t actually mean a lot unless people believe that it means something,” McDonald said.
If a potential employer or landlord sees a marijuana offense on a background check, they could still deny that person employment or housing if they don’t agree with the mayor’s pardon.
She said background check companies also don’t necessarily look at pardon records. As a result, a background check may bring up the fact that a person was convicted of a marijuana offense, but the person convicted would need to show their pardon papers themselves.
As the state moves toward fully legal marijuana use, McDonald believes that showing grace is critical to a compassionate society.
“We absolutely know that people make mistakes and do violate laws, but I just don’t get why people need to be punished for life and through so many different means,” she said. “Especially when they’ve served their sentence through the criminal justice system.”
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