A law signed last year by the governor allows people found guilty of possessing small amounts of marijuana to petition to annul their records. That law went into effect in January. But as NHPR’s Felix Poon reports, it’s hard to know exactly how many people are benefiting from the reform.
When House Bill 399 passed in the New Hampshire legislature last year, Heather Marie Brown was excited.
“If I could have done cartwheels where I was, I would have done cartwheels,” said Heather Marie Brown in an interview with NHPR’s Peter Biello in July 2019.
The bill would allow people to annul past criminal records for possession of small amounts of cannabis: anything under ¾ of an ounce. Brown said marijuana helps her deal with chronic pain.
“I don't want a criminal record to haunt me for the rest of my life for doing what I have always felt was best for my health,” said Brown.
Brown told NHPR that annulling the marijuana charges on her record would allow her to finally pursue a career as a nurse practitioner. But a year after the bill passed, Brown still hasn’t annulled her charges.
“Unfortunately, it's not as simple as what they would like people to believe,” said Brown. “To this date, I still have not been able to get it completed yet because, unfortunately, COVID came around.”
The pandemic has complicated a process that was already difficult - and, it turns out, hard to track. When the bill originally passed, legislators expected a flurry of petitions. But 8 months after the legislation went into effect, we don’t know how many people have taken advantage of it. In fact, the state doesn't either.
“I don't know how many people are filing for annulment right now. It would be just a complete guess which feels irresponsible,” said Kate Geraci, circuit court administrator.
Geraci says that when a record is annulled, the record disappears from their case management system. And according to the courts, that’s the point. A statement from the courts says, “because the purpose of the annulment statute is to treat the defendant as though there was no charge and no conviction. Additionally, the electronic court record is purged as a result of the annulment process so the judicial branch simply has no means to provide broad access to the requested information.”
Matt Simon from the Marijuana Policy Project, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to ending cannabis prohibition in the U.S., says he isn’t surprised that the numbers aren’t known.
“The most common answer I've gotten to questions over the last 14 years has been, I don't know, we don't know. We don't keep records on that,” explained Simon
What Simon wanted from the annulment bill was for the state to automatically expunge past records; in other words, to expunge your record without requiring you to initiate a request.
“We learned that it's not possible in New Hampshire due to the primitive way records are kept. So it has to be a process, as I understand it,” explained Simon. “Certainly good that the process exists, but my hunch and my understanding is that not a lot of people have done it, simply because there's a fee involved. There's work involved.”
The fees - to the court, to the Departments of Corrections and Safety - add up to three hundred twenty five dollars in total. A checklist on the courts’ website does say you can waive these fees if you can prove you don’t have the means to pay, but there are no specific instructions on how to do that.
It used to be that you could go to the court and talk to a clerk, but because of Covid, in-person access to the courts is limited. So now, it’s a process that involves email, phone calls, and then getting all the forms to the courthouse.
“I think that if I could physically go in and see these people, then I might get a little better information,” said Heather Marie Brown.
Brown says the process has been confusing to her, and, she says, she’s not great with technology.
“Trying to look it up on the internet and review the policies around it... It's very hard to actually decipher,” explained Brown.
With the cannabis charges still on her record, Brown is unable to pursue her nursing career. The drug charges make her ineligible for federal financial aid to go to school, and she hasn’t been able to get her certification to become a nursing assistant. In the meantime, Brown has been working odd jobs to stay afloat.
“The life that I'm living now is the complete opposite of the life that I had anticipated being able to create for my kids. And that that has me feeling like a failure at this point. Even though I know I'm not but, you know, for me to be constantly held down because of a plant is absolutely ridiculous,” said Brown.
Brown continues to use cannabis for her health problems - legally - through New Hampshire’s medical marjiuana program, a program that was established after Brown picked up her marijuana charges.