December 2021
Regaining Their Rights
Arizona NORML Workshops Help Wipe Records of Pot-Possession Convictions

For decades Yavapai County had the reputation of being one of the cruelest counties statewide for its stance on convicting and punishing marijuana users as felons. Not only did County Attorney Sheila Polk decide to prosecute a Chino Valley man whose “crime” was buying legal medical marijuana and concentrating it into less than an ounce of hash — a conviction that the Arizona Supreme Court threw out after he had already served three years — but it also forced many into expensive drug-treatment programs and onto probation.

Jonathan Udell, Mike Robinette, Julie Gunnigle, old Santa Cruz Courthouse

Compared with the general population, the number of people of Hispanic or Native American origins convicted for pot possession was also higher per capita. (The Chino Valley man, Rodney Jones, is black.) This tended to be the case because of the likelihood that they were lower-income and unable to afford attorneys who would get the charges reduced or thrown out. According to statistics gathered by the American Civil Liberties Union, in Yavapai County black people were arrested for possession 5.7 times more often than white people.

Locations for eight upcoming expungement workshops

When the Arizona Department of Health Services released the 87 zip codes showing the disproportionate impact of convictions, Hispanic and Native American communities comprised most of them.

In2020 Prop 207 legalized adult use of marijuana and provided for expunging (clearing) marijuana records. The process is automatic instates like California and New York, but Arizona chose to make it more difficult. The state’s system also does not completely wipeout the record so that a records search doesn’t show it, but instead sets it aside so that it is no longer an active felony record.

Record scan be cleared if they are for possession of up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis flower, 12.5 grams of concentrate, six or fewer plants, or paraphernalia charges. Yavapai County regularly charged people separately for possession of paraphernalia, including bags, pipes and any marijuana container.

Udell with attendee

Marijuana-possession felony records often automatically disqualify people for access to public benefits, student loans, housing, voting rights and jobs.

Arizona NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) has been helping people clear their conviction records for possessing small amounts of marijuana since the law was enacted in January of 2021. Most recently, it teamed up with the Yavapai County Democratic Party and a member of the Yavapai Apache tribe to set up workshops in Prescott Valley and Camp Verde. At the events, volunteer attorneys walk people through the process. Those attending should bring documents about arrests or convictions if they have them, but the attorneys can help even if they don’t.

Julie Gunnigle talks with attendee

The events are scheduled for Dec. 11 at the Camp Verde Parks and Recreation building, 395 S. Main Street, Room 204, 11am-5pm, and on Dec. 12 at the Bradshaw Mountain High School Library, 6000 Long Look Dr., Prescott Valley. Those who plan to attend are asked to sign upon the website or by using a QR code.

Because of confusion or a lack of information on how to expunge a possession record, as of September only a small percentage of the up to half-million people eligible in the state have filed to clear their records. Arizona NORML is trying to change that by holding workshops all over the state, and has done 51 of them so far in places as far south as Nogales and as far north as Flagstaff. Other rural areas they’ve reached include Kingman, Payson, Show Low and Springerville.

Mike Robinette, Southern Arizona Director of Arizona NORML, said the organization is grateful to be able to host the free clinics, which help people regain their rights, including the right to vote.

“Even minor marijuana convictions can preclude individuals from getting jobs, loans and housing, as well as eliminate their ability to participate in our democracy,” Robinette said. “We use volunteer attorneys to assist people with the process of expungement, and are able to use our proprietary software to generate their expungement petitions in just 15 to 20 minutes in any of our clinics.”

Robinette said that the organization has created over a thousand expungement petitions so far, thanks to a generous donation from Mohave Cannabis Co. The group’s goal is to do at least one free expungement clinic in every county in Arizona before the end of the year, and they’re on track to do so.

Udell, Robinette

“Yavapai County has been on our radar for a long time, and we are excited to be able to host two clinics there to help in reversing the damage done by marijuana arrests and convictions and the prohibitionist mindset of the county attorney,” Robinette said.

Thomasene Cardona, a Yavapai-Apache Nation member, helped arrange the Camp Verde location because she was interested in helping other tribal members clear their convictions. She noted that even the Yavapai-Apache wouldn’t hire tribal members with felony records to work in its casino. In recent years, however, the tribe changed its rules to consider hiring those with low-level drug convictions seven years after the charges.

John Lutes, chair of the Yavapai County Democratic Party, said the group assisted in setting up the workshop in the PV location because of its commitment to social justice for minorities and lower-income people who have been hurt by the county’s overzealous prosecution efforts.

“We know that prosecuting low-level marijuana offenses as felonies has had a devastating impact on the lives of people of color in this state,” Lutes said. “It’s important to us to restore voting rights for people who were harshly punished for a victimless crime.”

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