Think your marijuana case has been wiped off your record? You might want to check — and get some help

State law and sweeping moves by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and State’s Attorney Kim Foxx cleared cannabis convictions off the books, but many cases have not been expunged.

SHARE Think your marijuana case has been wiped off your record? You might want to check — and get some help
Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs legislation aiming to strengthen “the most equity-centric adult-use cannabis law in the nation” during a press conference at Cabrini Green Legal Aid, Dec. 4, 2019.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs legislation aiming to strengthen “the most equity-centric adult-use cannabis law in the nation” during a press conference at Cabrini Green Legal Aid, Dec. 4, 2019.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times file

Nearly half a million records of minor marijuana arrests were wiped off the books after Illinois legalized cannabis in 2019 — but only a fraction have been completely cleared from the public record, according to legal aid groups across the state.

With the unofficial “4/20” holiday just over a week away, legal aid organizations sought to remind state residents that they might still have cannabis offenses on their records even though tens of thousands of convictions were expunged automatically by sweeping moves mandated by the state’s marijuana laws, as well as action by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Kim Foxx, state’s attorney in Cook County.

But there are likely many, many more Illinoisans who could have their minor cannabis-related cases expunged — and many who only think they’ve already had their records cleared, said Leslie Corbett, executive director of the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation during a webinar Tuesday. Free legal help is available from New Leaf Illinois, a coalition of legal aid clinics and organizations across the state.

“We have the capacity to be doing so much more,” said Corbett in an interview.

Legal aid groups across the state are eligible for millions in state funding to help defendants with expunging their cannabis-related convictions — expungement aid is entitled to about 8% of the $275 million the state collected from marijuana tax revenue, but few people are taking advantage, Corbett said.

Statewide, aid groups have opened just 3,338 cases seeking expungement since 2019, according to New Leaf’s data.

A 2019 report from the state Sentencing Policy Advisory Council estimated that nearly 700,000 arrests on cannabis-related charges could be affected by the state’s marijuana legalization law, which included provisions that allowed state’s attorneys and the governor to issue pardons and vacate convictions en masse for low-level cannabis cases.

Pritzker in 2021 announced pardons for some 20,000 defendants for minor marijuana convictions, and Foxx in 2022 wiped out 15,000 more pot cases in Cook County. But some cases require the defendant to head into court, or at least file paperwork with the clerk, to have their records expunged, Corbett said.

Likewise, when the Illinois State Police cleared nearly 450,000 records of arrests from its database last year — those were only arrest records, Corbett noted, meaning records of the charges and disposition of those cases still may remain in the public record.

“Those cases aren’t going to show up in the state police database anymore, but they are still going to show up in a background check if they look at court records,” Corbett said. “So some of those ‘automatic’ expungements are not all that automatic.”

Across the state, expungements that require filing court paperwork can take months or years, said Daniel Kuehnert, senior staff attorney at Land of Lincoln Legal Aid in downstate Alton. So, anyone hoping to clear their record to improve their chances of getting a job, accessing student financial aid or other programs that bar participation from individuals with drug convictions, should get their cases in the pipeline for expungement, Kuehnert said.

“Don’t wait until you need it,” he said.

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