Effort underway to expunge marijuana convictions for Ohioans

While campaigning for legal pot through Issue 3, ResponsibleOhio took steps Tuesday to pass a law that would allow Ohioans with marijuana convictions to go to court to get their records expunged.

ResponsibleOhio submitted 236,759 signatures to the Ohio Secretary of State for a citizen initiated statute called the Fresh Start Act. A little less than 92,000 valid voter signatures are needed to put the proposed law before the Ohio General Assembly next year.

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If lawmakers fail to act on it by mid-May or it passes but Gov. John Kasich vetoes it, ResponsibleOhio will collect another 92,000 valid voter signatures to place the issue before voters on the November 2016 ballot, said ResponsibleOhio Executive Director Ian James.

Non-violent drug convictions, even misdemeanors, often bring collateral punishments such as loss of college financial aid, driver’s license, public housing and professional licensing. Such convictions often follow people for a lifetime and hurt their employment prospects for years.

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The Fresh Start Act would allow anyone convicted of an offense that is no longer illegal to request expungement. James did not specify what non-weed offenses might be covered.

The ACLU of Ohio and pastors from nearly a dozen African-American churches endorsed the Fresh Start Act on Tuesday.

“We know this is the way to go. We need a second chance. We need a fresh start,” said Pastor Jefferey P. Kee of New Faith Baptist Church of Christ in Columbus.

Gary Daniels, an attorney with the ACLU of Ohio, said across the country statistics show that “if you’re a person of color, you are far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, cited and when you go to court, convicted — all at far greater rates than somebody like me who is not a person of color.”

The Fresh Start Act was not included in the 6,500-word Issue 3, which is a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana for recreational and medical use, name 10 sites controlled by campaign financiers as the only places to grow commercial weed, and allow adults to home grow up to four plants. Issue 3 would set up a state agency to regulate the multi-billion dollar industry.

Nonetheless, ResponsibleOhio’s pro-Issue 3 campaign material talks about the Fresh Start Act. Critics say ResponsibleOhio is purposely misleading voters — a charge James denies.

“In online promotions, direct mail to voters, and statements to the press, the pro-Issue 3 campaign resorts to deception, focusing on something that isn’t even on the ballot as part of Issue 3 this fall. It’s distortion out of desperation. Issue 3 is about cementing greedy private investors into Ohio’s constitution with a plan that will create more than 1,100 marijuana stores selling marijuana-infused edibles that pose a serious risk to our children,” said Ohioans Against Marijuana Monopolies, the coalition opposing Issue 3.

Aaron Weaver, president of Citizens Against Responsible Ohio, which favors legalizing marijuana but opposes Issue 3 as the mechanism, said ResponsibleOhio is using “underhanded tricks and tactics” to shore up support.

The mixing of the Fresh Start Act into the Issue 3 material could have triggered a complaint before the Ohio Elections Commission but a federal court ruling last year invalidated parts of Ohio law prohibiting false statements in campaigns. The Ohio Elections Commission is not considering false statement complaints while it appeals the ruling.

“All I can say is that I found the mailing to be confusing,” said Ohio State University political scientist Herb Asher. “If I hadn’t known otherwise, I would have thought that the Fresh Start Act was incorporated in Issue 3. It really is a misleading document.”

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