Marijuana offenses in Minnesota are often low-level and result in a fine, but employers and landlords can use them as a reason to legally deny people work and a place to live. Expunging these records is a lengthy and sometimes costly process. Credit: Photo illustration by Kim Jackson | Sahan Journal

Possessing 1.5 ounces of marijuana and less has been a petty misdemeanor in Minnesota since the 1970s. 

The penalty is up to a $300 fee. But that doesn’t mean getting convicted of a low-level marijuana offense is the equivalent of paying off a parking ticket, which is also a petty misdemeanor. 

Marijuana convictions in Minnesota stay on people’s records forever. Employers and landlords can legally use the convictions as a reason to deny someone employment or housing. 

“Some places have a zero-tolerance policy for all drug offenses,” said Jon Geffen, a senior staff attorney with the Legal Revolution Law Firm who helps people remove marijuana offenses from their legal records. “You find a nice place for you and your two kids and your wife, and then they say, ‘Your wife and kids can move in—you can’t.’ That happens in public housing a fair amount.”

The burden falls harder on Black Minnesotans, who are five times more likely to be arrested for a marijuana offense than white Minnesotans, according to state data

The Minnesota Legislature appears on the cusp of passing a bill that would legalize recreational marijuana and automatically expunge all marijuana-related petty misdemeanors. But in the meantime, people seeking removal of their marijuana convictions must go through a lengthy and often costly process to get them expunged. 

The Legal Revolution Law firm will hold two free marijuana expungement clinics Wednesday, offering free legal advice to the public. The clinics will also offer free legal advice on expungement of other low-level offenses. 

The events are scheduled from 12:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., Wednesday, April 19, at the Minneapolis Central Library and Ujamaa Place in St. Paul. Click here to register for either event, which will occur simultaneously.  

Sahan Journal recently spoke with a local defense attorney and law professor about the process of expunging marijuana convictions.

When is a marijuana conviction a misdemeanor and when is it a felony?

Possessing 42.5 grams, or 1.5 ounces, or less of marijuana is a petty misdemeanor. Possessing between 1.5 ounces and 22 pounds is a fifth-degree felony, which is still eligible for expungement. This type of felony is similar to a shoplifting conviction.

Possession of anything beyond 22 pounds is not eligible for expungement. 

The same weight classifications apply to marijuana-infused edibles, which are not legal in Minnesota. Geffen, the Minneapolis defense attorney, said edibles are more likely to result in felony charges because they weigh more than marijuana flower, which is smoked in a joint or pipe.

“A little gummy weighs a lot more than a dried-out leaf,” Geffen said. 

For example, a typical marijuana-infused chocolate bar sold legally in Colorado weighs 45 grams, which would amount to a felony in Minnesota. 

Minnesota’s legal hemp-based edible market complicates the situation. Hemp-based edibles in Minnesota can contain the psychoactive ingredient THC, just like illegal marijuana edibles, but they are sold legally in the state and are thus legal to possess. 

How long does a marijuana conviction stay on your criminal record?

Forever, unless you get it expunged. Criminal convictions are public data by state law, and can be viewed at courthouse computer terminals and on databases available to the general public on personal computers.

How long does the expungement process take from start to finish?

Geffen said it can take six to nine months. 

What is the first step in the expungement process?

Determine if your conviction is eligible for expungement. People convicted of misdemeanors in Minnesota must wait for two years after the end of their sentences to become eligible for expungement. For a marijuana misdemeanor offense, that means two years from the day the $300 fine is paid off. 

“So, if you got a misdemeanor two weeks ago, you can’t get an expungement,” Geffen said. “There’s a waiting period.”

What happens if a marijuana conviction is eligible for expungement? 

At this point you can petition the state court for expungement. The first step is to file a proposed order with the court, which is a court form you, the petitioner, must fill out explaining the reasons for why the record should be expunged.

You must then serve every agency who has a copy of your marijuana conviction with a paper notice that you are seeking expungement of the record. The notice is a copy of your petition for expungement, the notice of your court hearing, and a proposed order to expunge your record. All of these are official documents you receive from the court to fill out and copy. Find a link to these forms here

Determining which agencies to notify can be a tough task, Geffen said. 

“That’s where everybody gets screwed up,” he said. 

For example, someone who is ticketed for marijuana possession by Minneapolis police should serve a notice to the Minneapolis Police Department, the Minneapolis City Attorney, Hennepin County Sheriff, Hennepin County Attorney, and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Geffen said. 

Anyone seeking jobs in healthcare should also send notices to the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Department of Human Services since they both license healthcare workers, he added.

A case will usually involve serving notices to seven to nine agencies, Geffen said. The process is complicated, which is why Geffen recommends hiring a lawyer for help. Missing an agency, he said, could jeopardize the whole expungement process. 

“If I don’t serve an entity, they wouldn’t expunge the records,” Geffen said. 

What happens after petitioning the court?

If the petition is properly filed, a judge will assign a court date for approximately 80 days later where you must appear in court in person. 

At the hearing, you make your argument to a judge about why the conviction should be expunged. Some judges may rule from the bench that day on whether to approve the expungement or not. Usually, however, they’ll take it into consideration and issue a written decision a few weeks after the hearing. 

If a judge approves the expungement, it will take at least 60 days to go into effect. State law allows each agency that holds the conviction record to review the petition and file an objection within those 60 days.

How much does expungement cost? 

Every expungement case includes a $305 court filing fee. This doesn’t include the cost of printing and mailing copies of notices of expungement to each relevant agency, which will vary. 

It could cost an estimated $2,500 to $3,000 to hire a lawyer to do the work, Geffen said.

However, the courts can waive fees and costs if you qualify under certain circumstances. You could qualify if your income is at or below 125% of the Federal poverty level, if you receive public assistance, or if you prove that you don’t have funds to pay the fee. 

“The judge can waive all or part of the court fees in a case,” according to the Minnesota Judicial  Branch website. “Getting a fee waiver does not mean you will never have to pay any costs or a judgment in the case.”

For more information about how to apply for a fee waiver, visit the judicial branch website.

Should immigrants with marijuana convictions seek expungement? 

If you are not a U.S. citizen, steer clear of seeking expungement, said Ana Pottratz Acosta, an immigration lawyer and law professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. That’s because federal immigration court won’t recognize state court expungements, even if they are successful. 

“When you expunge your conviction, it’s not expunged for immigration purposes,” Acosta said. 

State courts also seal records once they’re expunged. But immigrants will need copies of these records when they apply for important things like citizenship through the federal court. If an applicant for citizenship can’t track down their past convictions, which immigration courts require while considering the applicant’s citizenship, it could jeopardize their citizenship application, Acosta said.

She advises people who aren’t U.S. citizens to wait until after becoming a citizen to expunge their records. 

What information do the courts provide about the expungement process?

The Minnesota Judicial Branch offers its own explanations, links to forms, and video guides on its website:

How can I attend the free clinic Wednesday?

Two clinics will be held Wednesday, one in Minneapolis and another in St. Paul. Attendees do not have to stay for the entire duration of the clinic hours.

Clinic organizers are asking attendees to bring a valid government-issued ID, such as a driver’s license or state identification card, and a copy of their criminal record if they have it. Attendees will be paired with a volunteer navigator who will answer their questions and help them find a volunteer attorney or legal professional. 

Appointments are expected to take 30 to 45 minutes. The Great Rise covers “all filing and request fees in the expungement process” for workshop attendees, according to its website.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Jon Geffen’s title.

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...