MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin said Thursday he will look to pardon as many of the 10,000 to 17,000 Vermonters convicted of possessing an ounce or less of marijuana as he can before he leaves office on Jan. 5.
Shumlin announced his administration’s effort to issue the pardons Thursday and the creation of an online application form on his official website.
“When you look at the Vermonters who are sitting out there with criminal records because they had an ounce or less of marijuana, it could have happened in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, there’s thousands of them and as governor I’ve been trying to lead a more sane drug policy,” Shumlin told reporters.
The state decriminalized the possession of an ounce or less of the drug in 2013, but many Vermonters still have convictions for something that is now considered to be a civil violation in the state, not a criminal violation. The law that decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana also included a component allowing those previously convicted to have their convictions expunged. But that process has not been widely utilized.
“It’s a cumbersome process. It takes a lot of time. I think a lot of folks have hesitated to do it because of the bureaucracy. I’m hoping this will be a simpler one,” the governor said.
The governor, after hedging for several years, came out strongly in favor of legalizing marijuana last year. But the House rejected a bill passed by the Senate that would have created a legal, regulated marijuana market in the state. Shumlin, who did not seek re-election to a fourth, two-year term as governor, said he is looking to issue pardons now to those who do not have any convictions for violent crimes or other felonies.
“We will try to expedite as many of those as we can before I leave office on Jan. 5. I don’t want Vermonters who have no criminal record, who have no felonies, simply pot charges, to carry those around their necks any longer,” he said.
As many as 17,000 may be eligible for such a pardon, according to Shumlin. He said his office would accept pardon applications through Dec. 25 and process as many as possible, though he declined to speculate on how many pardons would be issued.
“We’ll get through as many as we possibly can. Let’s see how many actually apply. I just know that barely a week passes where I’m out talking to Vermonters where I don’t meet someone who says to me, ‘You know, I got charged with a small amount of marijuana back in the days when it was seen as a big crime and it’s affected my life.’ So, I want to help as much as I can,” Shumlin said.
A pardon from the governor would erase criminal offenses prior to 2013 from Vermonters’ criminal records. The online application describes a pardon as an “extraordinary act” by the governor. It also notes, however, that a pardon “will not necessarily erase a conviction or the record of that conviction, and may not change the consequences of that conviction.” Those applying should consult with a lawyer to determine if a pardon will have any legal consequences they are seeking.
Each application will be considered individually, and there is no guarantee of a pardon for everyone who applies, Shumlin said.
Shumlin’s past pardons have typically involved people convicted of drug charges who have “turned their life around.” He said he is considering other pardons outside of the effort he announced Thursday.
“This is the time of year when I do pardons. I’m interviewing people for pardons right now,” he said.
“I usually grant them because it’s holding up some part of their life. They want to be come a nurse but they can’t,” Shumlin added. “We have to understand that the approach to drugs that was much tougher just 10, 15, 20 years ago really affects Vermonters’ lives. Today they wouldn’t get those charges.”
Shumlin said he and his staff came up with the idea about a week ago when discussing what they could accomplish before leaving office.
The pardon application can be found online here: https://secure.vermont.gov/GOV/pardons/
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 3:40 p.m.