Governor Phil Murphy fulfilled two important campaign promises when the legislature passed his proposal to legalize the use of marijuana in New Jersey initially for medical and now for recreational purposes. Kudos to the Governor, his staff, the Senate President, the Assembly Speaker, other legislative leaders and their staffs on this significant accomplishment.
I have previously been counsel to two cannabis companies in applications for medical licenses and I have recently been engaged by a third company applying for a recreational license. However, this column is not written to extol the virtues of the legislation. Rather, inspired by the national leadership of Senator Cory Booker and Congresswoman Bonnie Watson-Coleman, I would like to address a yet unmet promise which flows from the legislation; the moral imperative to provide social justice to those who have previously been convicted for using marijuana in an amount which would be considered legal in 2021.
A cursory review of the records of these individuals will reveal that a disproportionate number of those convicted were men of color with little to no income and limited education. It is fundamentally and morally wrong for them to carry criminal records for the rest of their lives now that the rest of us may engage in the same act without any negative legal repercussions.
The legislature is now grappling with the complicated matter of providing expungements for people convicted of low-level, non-violent marijuana related crimes. cand I am confident that working with the Governor, our leaders will develop the appropriate remedy. There are probably tens of thousands of individuals who will be technically eligible for applying for such expungements but unable to afford to hire an attorney to clear their record.
As a former municipal attorney, municipal prosecutor and county Freeholder Director it is my belief that some type of special court sessions should be regularly scheduled to allow those convicted of such offenses to take advantage of any such expungement remedy as expeditiously as possible. However, such a remedy will be of little value for those individuals who cannot afford to hire an attorney to file for an expungement.
Numerous lawyers and law firms will make millions in legal fees assisting companies large and small obtaining state and local permission to grow, sell and distribute cannabis. I would propose that all such attorneys (myself included) pool their resources to provide free representation to all individuals who will not be able to afford to petition for an expungement.
Such free representation should be provided to only those individuals who have convictions for something which would otherwise be legal today under the same fact pattern. This recourse would not be available to anyone convicted of an act which would still be a crime if it occurred in 2021 or beyond.
Additionally, the first individuals to be so assisted would be those presently incarcerated for such offenses or for violations of probation or parole for such offenses. The definition of who can afford such representation should be liberally construed so as to provide representation to as many individuals who can truly not afford counsel. At the same time, if you are a successful Wall Street trader, sports figure, business person or otherwise an individual of means eligible for such an expungement you probably can and should hire your own attorney.
I would be glad to work with other like-minded attorneys to organize representation in each county once the expungement protocols have been established. As part of the honor of being an attorney each of us are responsible for providing free representation in a variety of matters and therefore my proposal would just focus such representation on a unique but very deserving class of individuals.
Law firms and lawyers often promote their commitment to social justice in press releases and on their websites. By volunteering to provide counsel for those who are entitled to an expungement but cannot take advantage of the process due to an inability to afford an attorney, the Bar of New Jersey can in one voice prove the sincerity our commitment to social justice.
Louis N. Magazzu is a former Cumberland County Freeholder Director and Democratic County Chairman, municipal attorney and municipal prosecutor who has represented several cannabis companies in New Jersey. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org