The PA Marijuana Pardon Project: What is it and how does it work?

By Jenna Anderson, Staff Writer 

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 On average, police make 38 marijuana-related arrests per day in Pennsylvania.[1] Charges and convictions for drug possession have long and far-reaching consequences, impacting one’s ability to apply for and receive housing, education, and other opportunities. 
Meanwhile, 58% of Pennsylvania voters indicated they support marijuana legalization in the Commonwealth, the highest percentage recorded since Muhlenberg College began tracking the issue in 2013.[2] Despite public support for less criminalization of the drug, the last significant piece of criminal justice legislation relating to marijuana offenses, Clean Slate, was passed by the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 2018.[3] Even though some municipalities have elected to decriminalize low levels of marijuana possession, an individual may be prosecuted under state law if they are caught in possession of any amount of cannabis without a medical marijuana license.[4][5]  
Individuals who are found with small amounts of marijuana are typically charged under Title 35, Section 780-113 of Pennsylvania’s Controlled Substance Act.[6] On September 1, 2022, Governor Tom Wolf and Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman announced a month-long pardoning effort for qualifying individuals who have these nonviolent marijuana convictions on their record.[7]
Dubbed the “PA Marijuana Pardon Project”, this effort is a large-scale attempt to pardon potentially thousands of Pennsylvanians.[8] Individuals are eligible for the project if the only convictions listed on their record are for Possession of Marijuana and/or Marijuana, Small Amount Personal Use. Applications were entirely online and were accepted through Friday, September 30.[9] There was no cost, nor legal representation, required to fill out an application.
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has referred to pardons as “the exercise of the sovereign’s prerogative of mercy.”[10]In practice, a pardon removes the legal consequences of a criminal conviction. However, a pardon is not the same as a cleared criminal record. After an individual is pardoned, they can apply for expungement, which completely removes the charge from their criminal history.[11] Usually, the process of clearing one’s record can take years and involves paying a fee for the records to be sent from the Pennsylvania State Police to the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons. The goal of the PA Marijuana Pardon Project is to get as many applications as possible approved by the Board of Pardons during their October 2022 meeting to then be signed by Governor Wolf before his term ends in January 2023. 
An individual can find out what charges are on their record to confirm whether they are eligible for the project by searching their name in Pennsylvania’s United Judicial System (UJS) web portal.[12]  If there are any other convictions besides Possession of Marijuana and/or Marijuana, Small Amount Personal Use on their record, they may be eligible for expedited review for marijuana-related offenses or clemency for other types of offenses.[13] These processes are more lengthy and require a fee to obtain original court documents, but are not constrained by the PA Marijuana Pardon Project’s September 30 deadline. 
Further, some misdemeanor marijuana charges have been automatically “hidden” from public view on the UJS portal due to the Clean Slate law. Clean Slate uses technology to seal arrests that didn’t result in convictions within 60 days, summary convictions after 10 years, and certain second-and third-degree misdemeanor charges if a person’s record has been clean for 10 years.[14] This enables individuals with dated nonviolent offenses to get a second chance to apply for certain jobs and benefits that they would previously be disqualified from. It also makes it more difficult to find the information needed to fill out an application for the PA Marijuana Pardon Project. Individuals with hidden charges will need to contact the Clerk of Courts in the county where they were charged to find out the charge and its associated offense tracking number and docket number.[15]
While the response to the free and faster pardon process was overwhelmingly positive, many individuals discovered they did not qualify for the project. Several participants had additional charges, such as possession of drug paraphernalia, which are broadly associated with possession charges.[16] Unfortunately, the PA Marijuana Pardon Project does not extend to such circumstances, where disproportionate policing in Black and Brown neighborhoods has led to people of color being almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana, despite roughly equal usage rates across racial groups.[17] For future criminal justice reform to be more impactful, the racial disparities created by the war on drugs should be considered. 

[1] Uniform Crime Reporting System. Drug Possession Arrest Data. 2021. 
[6] 35 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 780-113 (LexisNexis, Lexis Advance through 2022 Regular Session Act 52; P.S. documents are current through 2022 Regular Session Act 52)
[9] Id. 
[10] Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Sutley, 378 A.2d 780 (Pa. 1977)

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