Prime Leaf dispensaries are joining up with Tucson Councilmember Steve Kozachik and Southern Arizona NORML to host an expungement clinic at Tucson’s Ward 6 offices on Saturday, Oct. 9, as efforts to seal records of Arizonans with minor marijuana convictions continue.
“We figured that based on the turnout we had (at the first clinic), which was 15 people, we’d get better results if we teamed up with Prime Leaf to help promote it,” Kozachik said. “So we hope to get more people involved.”
The clinic is the second to be held in Kozachik’s office and the first in partnership with Prime Leaf. Arizona and Southern Arizona NORML chapters so far have hosted more than 20 clinics, hitting nearly half of Arizona’s 15 counties, although the lion’s share have been in the Phoenix metro area in partnership with dispensaries there.
While NORML has worked with Green Med-adjacent Harambe Café on Tucson’s east side, this will be the organization’s first Tucson clinic openly partnering with a dispensary.
Prime Leaf CEO Brian Warde sees it as a socially responsible thing for dispensary owners to do, given the economic impact the passage of Prop 207 has had on cannabis businesses throughout the state, and the role expungement played convincing Arizona voters to legalize adult-use, recreational weed.
“What these expungement clinics provide is to get word out on the street, and to get people talking about it,” he said. “I think that will certainly gain momentum, and will help people understand and trust the system.”
Warde comes to the expungement discussion through a life directly affected by the War on Drugs, which has led to an estimated 200,000 people with expungeable cannabis offenses in the state of Arizona.
His professional life before entering the cannabis industry in 2014 was as an advocate for underserved communities and people. He worked for the Department of Justice as a victim’s advocate for Southern Arizona Native American tribes and with the federal government to prosecute perpetrators of sexual assault. He has also worked to help people dealing with opiate addiction, and sees expungement as a way to begin healing in communities that have been hard-hit by the War on Drugs.
But he came to his vocation through first-hand experience with the fallout from those drug policies, growing up in an economically challenged family with a step-father caught in the criminal justice system, in part because of low-level drug convictions.
“I’ve seen what minor drug offenses can lead to and the impacts on people. Those affected me directly,” he said. “I never spent a day outside of a prison with (my stepdad). So that hit home for me as much as my career did.”
Warde hopes to set an example for other Tucson-area dispensary owners, and spur them to join the effort to advance expungement in what is expected to be a multi-billion dollar industry, the fruits of which many will share.
“I hope to inspire all dispensary organizations and anyone benefiting off of the current climate to participate in fixing the wrongs for those that have paved the way and paid the ultimate price for our successes,” he said.
Expungement of marijuana offenses means that the conviction records are sealed as if they had never happened and cannot follow the petitioner around. The legalization initiative succeeded, in part, because of the promise of repairing at least some of the damage done through the decades-long War on Drugs.
So far, though, those efforts have not resulted in a flood of expungements. According to the Arizona Superior Court in Pima County, since July there have only been 28 petitions filed and only 16 records have been sealed. Three petitions have been denied.
Pima County Attorney’s Office Senior Counsel Jack Chin says there are likely “tens of thousands” of records eligible for expungement in Pima County, although there are no “hard numbers.”
“In terms of increasing capacity, Southern Arizona Legal Aid has hired attorneys to work on the issue, and we will be responsive to them when they file petitions,” Chin wrote via email. “In the medium to long term, the only way the will of the voters will be carried out is through aggregate expungements, as have been accomplished in other states. This office is thinking about how to make that possible.”
Many cannabis advocates in the state believe the only way to expedite the process is to come up with a system that automatically expunges records. The state of New York instituted an automatic system that happens “without filing any motions and without any fees. You do not have to do anything,” according to the New York State Unified Court System website.
While advocacy groups can only do so much, it is more than likely the only way to fully implement expungement is to adopt some kind of similar system.
Warde believes state and county prosecutors should bear the responsibility for that and it should not be left to nonprofits or community agencies.
“The system had no problem finding money to purchase equipment, hire task forces and arrest and incarcerate people when it was their agenda,” he said via text. “They have been awarded funds from taxing the consumers in our industry to get it done. I heard more people praising them and using those conviction statistics to drive the War on Drugs narrative, so now use the current climate and funding to drive the new narrative of legalization and (take) steps to make people whole again.”
Robinette said Arizona NORML will continue its efforts throughout the year, with about 30 more planned by the end of the year, and he hopes to have at least one clinic in every county by then.
In 2022, he sees automatic expungement efforts stepping up.
He said one of the primary items on NORML’s 2022 legislative agenda is to push for legislation “that will make expungements in Arizona both universal and automatic. While we thoroughly enjoy and are grateful for this opportunity to do these clinics, and to help people in the cannabis community, we still would prefer that petitioners didn’t have to jump through hoops to make the petition and the expungement happen.”
Robinette estimates that about 650 petitions have been processed per week in the state and that NORML volunteers have “processed or created over 1,000 petitions through all of our clinics.”
The upcoming clinic will not involve the Pima County Attorney’s Office, so that potential attendees feel more comfortable participating. Kozachik thinks many people avoid petitioning because they fear they may be walking into a legal trap.
“We are not involving the PCAO in this, not because we have an attitude about them,” he said. “It’s that oftentimes, people are reluctant to come in and start talking about prior convictions with a Pima County attorney.
“For instance, if I came in and was trying to get a possession for two ounces expunged from my record, but I also had a Grand Theft Auto on my record, they would be honor-bound to pursue (it),” Kozachik concluded.
The clinic will take place at the Tucson Ward 6 office, 3202 E. First St., from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 9. Attendees should bring as much information as they can involving their specific cases. Masks will be required and provided onsite for those who do not have one and COVID protocols will be in place. ν
For more information, go to arizonanorml.org/expungement/, www.facebook.com/primeleaftucson, or www.tucsonaz.gov/ward-6.
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