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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

With Legal Pot On The Way, Oregon Considers Wiping Marijuana Convictions

Chris Lehman
Northwest News Network
Tim McClure was convicted of a felony drug charge in connection to a marijuana grow operation near this spot on his Wasco County ranch.

Starting in July, adults in Oregon can legally use recreational marijuana.

But thousands of Oregonians will still have criminal records for marijuana offenses that would have been legal under the new law. Now, Oregon lawmakers are considering a proposal to wipe the slate clean for people convicted of certain marijuana offenses.

Details of the measure are still being negotiated but it's likely to apply only to people who did things that will be legal once the voter-approved Measure 91 takes effect.

Expunging marijuana convictions

"We believe that this is absolutely crucial,” Midge Purcell of the Urban League of Portland said. She said the proposal is especially important for African-Americans, who are disproportionately arrested for marijuana offenses.

"People who have been incarcerated for relatively non-violent, minor offenses will have convictions that will follow them for the rest of their lives,” Purcell said.

In fact, people convicted of lower level marijuana offenses in Oregon do have a remedy available to them. After three years, they can petition to have their conviction set aside. But the process costs hundreds of dollars and is subject to a judge's approval. Still, some prosecutors think the current process is sufficient.

"I don't see the societal good in allowing everybody to get their records wiped.” Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis said. He was an outspoken opponent of legalizing recreational marijuana. But he said a mass expungement of pot convictions goes even further than what voters approved.

"If they wanted 91 to retroactively go back and wipe out everybody's records, I assume they would have put it in there,” Marquis said. “But they didn’t."

'I'm an unlikely convicted felon'

Fifteen years ago, cattler rancher Tim McClure pleaded guilty to charges of manufacture and delivery of a controlled substance. In simpler terms, cops busted him for an illegal marijuana grow on his family's farm in rural Wasco County, Oregon.

"It was going to be just a few plants,” McClure said. “It ended up being a bit more than a few plants."

McClure said he arranged for a former ranch hand to live on the remote site and tend the plants. A passing hunter stumbled upon the operation and called the police. McClure didn't serve any prison time but paid a fine and was sentenced to community service. Now he serves as a volunteer youth sports coach and he’s served as president of the local farmers market.

"I'm an unlikely convicted felon, I think,” McClure said. “I think after 15 years there ought to be some remedy available to me.”

And since marijuana will be able to be grown commercially, it's possible McClure would qualify.

McClure said that since his arrest, he's never actually walked down the slope to where the marijuana was found.

"I was in a state of panic,” he said. “I didn't know what was going to happen to me. And I just thought that maybe by staying away it might blow over. It did not."

McClure's Class A felony conviction means he doesn't qualify for Oregon's current expungement law for marijuana offenses. He says unless lawmakers act, his only hope to clear his record is a pardon from the governor.

While that may be a long shot, he does have one local law enforcement officer in his corner. Wasco County District Attorney Eric Nisley said he'd write a letter in support of Tim McClure if he ever decides to seek a pardon.