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I-Team: Clearing Old Marijuana Charges In Massachusetts Is A Struggle

BOSTON (CBS) - Now that marijuana is legal in Massachusetts, WBZ's I-Team has found that some people are still paying a hefty price for arrests from years ago.

"I got shot down for a job because…I had marijuana cases," said a 44-year-old Boston man who wanted to stay anonymous. He says the cases on his record involve the substance that's not only legal in Massachusetts now, it's big business. Still, when prospective employers check his background, his marijuana charges still come up as drug cases. "You make one mistake, it sets you back for the rest of your life," he said.

When he petitioned to have the case files destroyed, a judge denied the request. "The judge felt it wasn't in the interest of justice to expunge those marijuana cases that I have," he said. "I didn't understand it…people have like million dollar, billion dollar companies selling marijuana now. It's legalized in Massachusetts."

Before the first pot shops opened in the state, Massachusetts lawmakers passed an expungement law that gives people the chance to clear old charges. But critics say it's problematic. "It's a very tedious process," said Massachusetts Rep. Chynah Tyler, who's pushing legislation that would automatically erase past marijuana charges from people's records en masse. "Not only should they have those records expunged, they should have them expunged immediately," she said.

Numbers the I-Team obtained show 724 people tried to get their records cleared under the state's new expungement law last year. Of those, 135 were successful, which is 18.6%.

"It's not working exactly as intended," said Pauline Quirion, an attorney with Greater Boston Legal Services. "I think there are natural biases. We do get sometimes some resistance from judges." She says the process can be cumbersome. To get records destroyed, people have to unseal them first, making them public. Sometimes they stay that way for months at a time, while judges mull over decisions.

"They've already paid their debt to the American legal system," said Rep. Tyler. "What we can do to pay it forward, is to automatically expunge records."

It's already happening in other parts of the country. Some prosecutors are using new technology to automatically clear marijuana charges in cities like L.A., San Francisco, and Chicago. There are critics though, who say if it was illegal when it happened, it was still breaking the law.

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