A new North Dakota program to expunge the records of low-level cannabis offenders has seen few takers so far, leading state officials wondering how to better get the word out. Under the program, offenders with convictions for minor marijuana crimes can receive a pardon and have their records cleared if they refrain from further unlawful behavior for five years.

The policy change was spearheaded by Republican Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem as a way to ease the collateral damage caused by convictions for minor drug crimes, such as problems obtaining employment, housing, and educational benefits. The action was supported by fellow Republican Gov. Doug Burgum, who said that the change could help “address our state’s workforce shortage and grow the economy.”

Stenehjem has estimated that up to 175,000 North Dakotans convicted of minor crimes committed over several decades are eligible for the pardon program and could have their criminal records cleared. But in the months since the program was launched in July, less than three dozen people have applied.

“I’m rather surprised that so few people have applied,” said Stenehjem, who is also one of five members of the state’s pardon advisory board. “We will look at ways to get word out.”

Dan Owen, an advocate for the legalization of cannabis for adult use in North Dakota, applauded the change in law enforcement policy.

“This is a fantastic policy and I wish people would be willing to get informed,” Owen said. “The problem is a lot of people are uneducated on the issue.”

Pardons Are Free and Easy

Unlike some other states that have enacted programs for the automatic expungement of low-level marijuana convictions, those wishing to have their records cleared in North Dakota must complete a short online application, which is reviewed by law enforcement before being placed on the pardon advisory board’s agenda. The board has been authorized to approve applications in batches, rather than individually, to expedite the process. There is no fee to apply for a pardon.

“I suppose there may be a certain number of people who won’t want to go through the process — but it is a very simple process,” the attorney general said.

Owen said those who wish to take advantage of the program have to make the effort on their own.

“In some ways, you have to control your own destiny. It is not that difficult to fill out the form,” he said. “I’d do it if I had a conviction,” he added.

Stenehjem says that most people who apply for the program will qualify and successfully have their records expunged, which “totally removes a conviction; totally removes guilt.” Those with cleared records would also be able to “honestly say ‘no’” if they are asked if they have a previous conviction for a marijuana offense.

When the pardon advisory board meets in Bismarck next week, 26 people are slated to have their applications reviewed. Six other applicants who did not meet the requirements of the program have been denied a pardon.

Only six people have submitted applications for the board’s next meeting in April. Stenehjem said that he may reach out to attorneys practicing in North Dakota and ask them to inform their clients and former clients of the new program.

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