Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, and Gov. Ned Lamont at a press conference on Jan. 9, 2023 Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

As commercial cannabis retailers prepared to open their doors to customers this week, Connecticut policymakers and advocates gathered Monday to celebrate a law which last week erased records of more than 43,000 low-level cannabis convictions. 

Gov. Ned Lamont and some of his top criminal justice advisors appeared alongside Judiciary Committee co-chairman Sen. Gary Winfield for a news conference at the Greater Hartford Reentry Welcome Center on the Jan. 1 expungement of 43,754 criminal records related to possession of cannabis.

The provision which erased those records was included in the 2021 law which legalized adult possession of the substance and established the recreational market that will begin Tuesday around 10 a.m. at more than a half dozen retailers across the state. 

The policy was designed to ease the barriers to opportunities like employment and housing which a criminal record represents to many people convicted under the long-standing war on drugs. 

Winfield, a New Haven Democrat and leading proponent of the legislation, pointed to statistics given Monday by the Lamont administration: about 35% of the residents whose cases were wiped clean this month were Black while, according to census figures, only about 10% of Connecticut’s population is Black. Winfield said that disparity was the result of policy choices.

“It’s not like disparity just kind of happens. We have chosen to have disparity and so now we have to choose to have something different,” Winfield said. “That is what we call a second chance, but what is for many people, their very first … real chance at a life.” 

Lamont said the war on drugs destroyed a lot of lives and the erasure of some of the resulting criminal records would make a difference in setting right past wrongs. 

“Forty-four thousand folks are going to have one less barrier to overcome in order to get back on their feet, one less barrier to overcome in order to get that home that is just a foundation to getting back on your feet,” Lamont said. 

The automatic erasures affected convictions that took place between 2001 and about 2015. People with cannabis convictions either before or after those dates can also petition state courts to erase those records. 

But while officials celebrated the expunged cannabis convictions, they acknowledged that many more records were meant to be erased on Jan. 1 under a separate policy known as the “Clean Slate” law.

The state Criminal Justice Information System Governing Board signaled in November that it would be unable to implement the policy, which was written to expunge hundreds of thousands of criminal records. The law was designed to automatically clear records of misdemeanors, Class D and E felonies as well as some unclassified crimes after a period of seven to 10 years.

In a letter, the board told the Judiciary Committee it needed clarification and potential legislative action on a number of questions before the records could be purged. 

On Monday, Marc Pelka, Lamont’s undersecretary of criminal justice policies, said he expected the law to be implemented later this year. Pelka said the Clean Slate law necessitated around $5 million in technological upgrades in order to clear the appropriate criminal records. Those upgrades, in addition to legal and policy questions about the law, have “added some rigor to the process.”

“Connecticut has moved very quickly relative to other states to implement clean slate and it’s apparent work is required to get it done along the way,” Pelka said. 

As they crafted the law, Winfield said lawmakers recognized that delays were possible but moved forward with the ambitious legislation anyway rather than risk missing an opportunity. 

“We are going to make this happen,” Winfield said. “We’re not going to make it happen on Jan. 1, obviously, but it is completely the intent of the legislature to figure out what those questions are, figure out what the answers are and get us on track as soon as possible.”