BOSTON — Voters legalized marijuana in 2016, but people previously arrested with the drug are still being haunted by past convictions.

Advocates say those with misdemeanor pot charges on their records from pre-legalization days still face restricted access to jobs, housing and education. They want Massachusetts to follow the lead of other states where weed is legal that have automatically expunged prior charges.

"We're talking about people who were convicted of crimes that society has deemed shouldn't have been a crime," said Jim Borghesani, a cannabis industry consultant who worked on the 2016 ballot question that legalized weed. "It's tragic there's so many people that had their lives ruined by convictions that today would no longer be a criminal charge."

Several proposals are expected to be filed in the upcoming legislative session to allow people to wipe those records clean.

A 2008 ballot question made possessing an ounce or less of marijuana a civil offense, punishable by a $100 fine. Four years later, voters approved its medical use.

Then, in 2016, nearly 54% of voters at the ballot box approved legalized recreational marijuana.

Marijuana advocates say voters have made clear over the years that possession of small amounts should not be illegal, and people with old convictions should get a second chance.

Other states where recreational marijuana is legal that have taken similar steps to seal or expunge criminal records en masse.

California wiped away past marijuana convictions under a bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an expungement bill in 2019 that allowed an estimated 150,000 people to have previous convictions sealed.

In October, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis automatically pardoned more than 2,700 low-level marijuana convictions for possession of one ounce or less, some dating back to 1978. The move was authorized under a bipartisan law in that state allowing governors to grant pardons for previous pot convictions.

But clearing records of past convictions, even in places where pot is legal, remains controversial.

In Washington state, which legalized pot in 2012, it took several years to pass a pot expungement bill amid opposition from prosecutors.

In Massachusetts, law enforcement officials and even some lawmakers have pushed back on efforts to retroactively wipe away previous convictions.

Similar bills have been filed in the past several sessions only to languish due to lack of support.

The state allows individuals to request that their records be expunged, but the process can be costly, time consuming and may require an appearance before a judge.

Pauline Quirion, a lawyer and director of the criminal records sealing project at Greater Boston Legal Services, said anyone who undergoes state Criminal Offender Record Information checks for housing or work can be turned down if they have marijuana charges in their past.

"Employers tend not to hire people with records, even for minor offenses," she said. "It really holds people back from getting on with their lives."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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