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Old marijuana charges could go up in smoke with new expungement process

Attorneys helped people clear their cases at a first-of-its-kind clinic

Some missed out on job opportunities. Others found it difficult to apply for loans. And while some suffered almost no effects for having a marijuana conviction or arrest on their records, one woman talked about being unable to become a homeowner.

Those were some of the stories of people attending a first-of-its-kind expungement clinic on Saturday, July 3 at Harambe Café on Tucson's east side, as lawyers, law students and advocates from all over Southern Arizona offered their services to help guide those looking to clear their cases.

“Everyone in general is struggling,” said Michelle Ochoa, who volunteered at the event — and prepared her petition for expungement. “With housing opportunities, employment opportunities, just to get ahead, all because of a minor conviction. Like mine.”

Mike (who didn't want to use his full name because of privacy concerns about his legal record) can relate. After a charge in 2019 for possessing marijuana, he was able to get a new job recently, but said he knows he’s lucky.

“I thought that was going to be something that was going to kind of either prohibit me from accepting the job,” he said. “But thank goodness, it didn't.”

For Ochoa? That minor conviction was for possession of marijuana paraphernalia – there wasn’t any useable marijuana found, just residue. “It was insane,” she said. “And I, till this day, cannot become a homeowner because of that stupid, petty little charge.”

Ochoa isn’t alone. According to Jon Udell, a cannabis law attorney with the Rose Law Group and Arizona chapter board member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, marijuana charges and convictions can be extremely harmful to a person’s personal and professional lives.

Consequences can range from being denied a job due to the charge popping up on a background check, to being turned away for applying for a business license.

“There's all different kinds of negative effects that this can have on people, and for something that's totally harmless,” Udell said. That’s why he’s so excited about Arizona’s new avenue for expunging such cases, convictions and arrests.

Passed as part of Prop. 207, the language in the bill allows for individuals convicted, charged or even arrested for certain marijuana and paraphernalia cases to apply to have those cases expunged from their criminal records.

In order for a case to qualify, there are different stipulations. For possession charges, an individual must have had less than 2.5 ounces of marijuana (of which, up to 12.5 grams can be concentrates).

For cultivation charges, individuals have to have possessed six plants or less in order to qualify. Paraphernalia charges are also eligible. Udell did note that only state-level charges are eligible for expungement.

“If you were arrested under federal law, you're not eligible for expungement,” he said. “Because the voters of Arizona, unfortunately, can't force the federal government to erase its records.”

Udell says anyone interested in petitioning to have their case considered for expungement should first visit the Arizona Supreme Court’s website where they'll find expungement instructions and forms to fill out based on which court an individual will need to petition.

“For people that were actually charged, they’ll file in the court where they were charged,” Udell said. “If people were just arrested, no charges were filed, there'll be filing it in the superior court where the arrest occurred.

The state will begin processing petitions on July 12.

From there, the prosecuting jurisdiction responsible for the individual’s case has up to 30 days to contest. If that happens, the prosecuting jurisdiction requests a hearing. If not, according to Udell, the case is expunged.

Udell also said anyone in need of help filing out the petitions could visit to find scheduled expungement clinics like the one held at Harambe Café.

After hearing about the clinics through social media and going through the petition process with Udell, Mike said he'd recommend attending for anyone who might still have questions.

"It's nice and simple," he said. "Everybody's here. They know what they're doing and it seems like you got some great volunteers."

Because this is the first real expungement process of its kind in Arizona, Udell said he and other attorneys are interested in seeing how the process plays out.

"This is really a sea change for Arizona," he said.

For Ochoa and Mike, however, the prospect of having both a social and professional burden removed from their shoulders has more concrete and practical benefits.

"It's just the state of an ease of mind for myself to know it's going to be expunged from there," Mike said. "And I wouldn't have to worry about it, whether it be employment or credit checks or anything like that."

Ochoa agreed. Plus, it meant finally being able to realize a 15-year-long dream.

“This is a big, big, big, big opportunity,” she said. “Because now I can become a first-time home buyer ... I'm really looking forward to going out and buying my home.”

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“I guess I feel blessed,” Reyes “Rey” Rocha, the store manager of the Fry’s at the northwest corner of Grant Road and First Avenue. “You know, I got the shot, I did something simple and got rewarded. I mean, how much more blessed can I be than that? You know?”

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