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July 27, 2017

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Pot offenders would have convictions wiped clean under new bill

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Steve Marcus

Trimmed “White Bubba” marijuana buds are displayed at a Desert Grown Farms Cultivation Facility in Las Vegas, Dec. 15, 2016.

CARSON CITY — Nevadans convicted of marijuana crimes that are no longer deemed illegal after November’s passing of Ballot Question 2 would be eligible to have those crimes wiped off their criminal records, according to a bill introduced to an Assembly committee on Tuesday.

As possessing and using one ounce or less of marijuana flower or one-eighth of an ounce of marijuana concentrates, like shatter, wax and carbon dioxide oil for recreational use is no longer a crime in Nevada, those convicted of using or possessing the now-legal amount in the past should not have to carry the burdens of their past marijuana-related, according to Assembly Bill 259.

“This is to help low-level drug offenders have this removed or vacated,” said freshman Assemblyman William McCurdy, D-Las Vegas, to the Assembly Committee on Corrections, Parole and Probation on Tuesday morning.

Nevadans charged for possessing or using more than the legal limit, which went into law on Jan. 1, 2017, would not be eligible to have their convictions removed. McCurdy’s bill also does not cover those convicted of selling marijuana or transporting it over state lines, as that is still currently illegal in Nevada.

McCurdy’s bill would also remove mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders in Nevada in favor of substance abuse treatment. The Assembly District 6 representative shared federal statistics showing a 77 percent increase in the arrest rate for selling or manufacturing drugs in the United States since 1980, and blamed the overcrowding of Nevada incarceration facilities on such arrests.

Inmates convicted on drug charges who show “good cause” and whose convictions did not include a physical altercation or the possession of any weapons would be eligible for early release under AB259.

Assembly members on the 14-member committee questioned the bill’s relevancy to recent marijuana offenders, arguing that most people charged with possessing or using marijuana over the past five years received small misdemeanor fines and served no jail time.

But marijuana activist Will Adler, speaking in favor of the bill, reminded legislators that as recently as 2009, possession of any amount of marijuana was a felony, and as recently as 1997, resulted in 15 years of prison time for those convicted of possessing it.

“We had some of the strictest marijuana laws until these last five years,” Adler said. “And it was up to discretion, if you got busted somewhere like Elko, they’d throw you out with the full penalty of the law.”

Assemblyman and committee member Tyrone Thompson said the issues “hit home” for him, too, after a cousin convicted for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana spent 16 years in the Nevada detention system for that crime.

Both Thompson and Adler said the bill, if passed into law, would most benefit those who were convicted “decades ago.” Despite the fact that such Nevadans no longer use marijuana, they still have a “black mark” on their record that could interfere with employment opportunities.

“People wanted to see removal of marijuana possession as a crime and this is in theme with that,” Adler said. “We are making these people part of Nevada’s current law instead of the previous law of extreme penalties.”

Those speaking in opposition to McCurdy’s bill argued that the term “vacate,” as written in AB259, would not do enough to help Nevadans convicted of marijuana offenses because records of that person’s arrest, court proceedings and conviction or plea and even the vacation of the crime would still be visible to the public.

John Jones of the Nevada District Attorneys Association said that while he supported the intent of the bill, records of those affected should be sealed instead of vacated so there would be no trace of their arrests, court proceedings or conviction or plea to members of law enforcement, future employers or the public. Jones argued that such language should be removed from the AB259 and placed in a separate amendment to Nevada Revised Statue 179.245, which details the process of sealing records after a conviction.

“I would hate for a defendant to think they file a motion to vacate a judgement, that judgement gets dismissed and for them to think the process is finished because it isn’t,” Jones said. “With a sealing, any record of the arrest goes away as well as any record of the court proceeding.”

The deliberation on whether the convictions should be vacated or sealed went on for the better part of an hour during the 100-minute hearing of AB259 on Tuesday.

Others who seemingly oppose the bill included Assemblyman and committee member Ira Hansen, R-Reno, who said that AB259 contradicted federal policy on marijuana. He cited recent remarks from Attorney General Jeff Sessions that suggested the U.S. government would begin clamping down on recreational marijuana in states where it is legal.

“We definitely have a train wreck coming with the state of Nevada and the attorney general of the United States,” Hansen said.

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