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Maryland Gov. Wes Moore is pardoning 175,000 marijuana convictions

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Maryland Governor Wes Moore took what's being called an historic action this week, when he pardoned more than 175,000 low-level marijuana convictions in the state. Maryland voters opted to legalize recreational marijuana for adults in 2022. The governor said residents shouldn't be penalized for behavior that's no longer illegal. And Governor Wes Moore is with us now to tell us more about this. Good morning, Governor. Thanks for joining us.

WES MOORE: Good morning. Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: So these are misdemeanor convictions for possession of cannabis and paraphernalia. They're not felonies, which means people aren't barred from voting because of these convictions. So is this about removing a stigma, or are people still experiencing real-world consequences because of these low-level offenses?

WES MOORE: You know, the way we have used and looked at cannabis in our society and particularly this larger criminalization of it is we essentially have made every sentence a life sentence because you are going to deal with the consequences of that for many, many years to come. There was one individual, for example, who I was with yesterday, named - who received one of the pardons was a guy named Shiloh. Shiloh, for years, has had a misdemeanor cannabis conviction on his record. That was the only thing on his record, and he has not been able to hold sustainable employment since. In fact, in one job, he was telling me, where he had a job, just got a job, on the second day of the job was fired because he failed a background check because of a misdemeanor cannabis charge. So this is not just hurting Shiloh. This is not just hurting his family. This is hurting our entire community. This is hurting our economic system, when you have people who are not able to participate in the economic system, and so if we're really...

MARTIN: So people - your people are seeing - people are still being fired from jobs because of low-level misdemeanors from sort of years ago. They're being barred from employment. You're saying that is still happening.

WES MOORE: That's still happening. The barriers to everything from employment to education to the ability to buy a home and to be able to start gaining wealth for your family - all of these things are being blocked. And so by doing this, what is the largest state misdemeanor cannabis pardon in the history of this country - essentially what it's doing is we want to make second chances actually mean something, and we want to make sure that people can actually be part of an economy, particularly when the thing that they're found guilty of is no longer a crime.

MARTIN: You know, my understanding is that these pardons won't automatically expunge cannabis-related convictions. People still have to file paperwork for that. Why not expunge the records automatically? I mean, if this is an equity and social justice issue, why add this paperwork burden to people who are already, in your estimation, burdened by something unfair?

WES MOORE: Well, there are tens of thousands of Marylanders who now have their records automatically expunged with this action. Expungement is a process that generally happens once a person has their record cleared. What has now happened with this pardon is 175,000-plus convictions have now been pardoned. And so basically what that means is there's now showing that there is no longer any guilt that they have, that they've been cleared, and so for - there's tens of thousands of people who now have had their record expunged because of this action. There are some who will have to go through an application process, but it's a seamless application process once it's complete.

MARTIN: Yeah. It's my understanding, though, that other states have gone to expungement automatically on this. I think Minnesota is one of them. Why not just do that?

WES MOORE: Well, I think that's something that has to be done with legislative action.

MARTIN: OK.

WES MOORE: The pardon is something that the governor has the unique authority over, and so - you know, so the action that I took in the authority of my office is that, well, I've just done the largest state misdemeanor cannabis pardon, and that's where the governor's responsibility lies. On the other elements, I'll be working in partnership with the legislature to make sure that we get full coverage on everything else.

MARTIN: And it's my understanding that nobody will be released from incarceration because of this. Is that because there is no one incarcerated for these convictions?

WES MOORE: That's exactly right, and so what this is - this is covering down on people who frankly have, in some way, served a debt to society but are still dealing with the consequences of it, are still unable to go get jobs and still unable to go get home loans because of these convictions that still sit on their records. And so that's essentially what's now happening - is these are saying that, you know, we as a society have to be one that believes in leaving no one behind, and this is a core component of that.

MARTIN: So let's look at this from the other direction. This is not about sort of criminal justice per se, but some states and localities are rethinking their permissiveness around marijuana use because residents are complaining that weed shops are inundating certain neighborhoods, that public spaces are being degraded, sometimes in neighborhoods that are already under stress. And I just wonder if you share those concerns.

WES MOORE: Well, I think we can't look at these things in absolutes. I think you have to be clear, and you have to be thoughtful about how you can have a successful rollout of a recreational cannabis industry. I mean, I think about what we've done in the state of Maryland, where, you know, when we voted overwhelmingly - 70% of Marylanders voted to open up a recreational cannabis market, and we have now rolled out what many people consider to be not just the most equitable but the smoothest cannabis rollout that we've seen in our country. And so I think you have to make sure you have real guidelines. You have to make sure that you make safety and health a priority, and you have to make sure you make equity a priority in this, but I think that that takes a real level of diligence and thoughtfulness as you're going through the rollout process.

MARTIN: That is the governor of Maryland, Wes Moore. Governor Moore, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WES MOORE: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.