As an attorney and former caseworker, Katie Rogers endeavors to represent the people suffering most from injustice, so when the opportunity came to help people remove marijuana conviction records, she jumped.
Southern Arizona Legal Aid (SALA) is providing free expungement services to anyone inside or outside Arizona holding marijuana convictions through the Begin Again Expungement Project (BEAP).
Services include direct representation in which an attorney will draft and submit a petition on behalf of the client, handle communications with the agency responsible for charging the client, as well as working with the court.
Project attorneys follow the process until all charges or convictions are expunged from a clients’ records, said Rogers, the senior attorney on the project.
The BAEP is part of a state-wide coalition known as Reclaim your Future comprising entities such as the Arizona Justice project, Community Legal Services, the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at ASU and the University of Arizona College of Law.
“I’ve primarily worked with folks who are usually left out of the equation when talking about the applicability of laws and the well-being of our society at large,” said Rogers of her career.
Rogers has represented a wide range of cases, from domestic violence victims, family law, working with parents through the Department of Child Safety, divorce and family law, and was a case manager for homeless youth and young adults.
“When this opportunity came for me to be able to do something that can help people who are underrepresented, are generally disenfranchised from society as a whole and people who have been disproportionately affected by the enforcement of drug laws, I really wanted to take my law career in that direction.”
The project is funded through a grant issued by the Department of Health Services (DHS) following the passage of Proposition 207 on Nov. 3, 2020.
The voter-initiated proposition, also known as the Smart and Safe Act, legalized the recreational use of marijuana and provided a legal avenue for Arizonans to petition to expunge marijuana-related criminal records. The act received 1,956,440 (60%) votes in favor of and 1,302,458 (40%) votes against legalization, according to the Secretary of State’s election results.
Proposition 207 also adopted the Social Equity Ownership Program (SEOP), in order to issue licenses to owners “from communities disproportionately impacted by the enforcement of previous marijuana laws,” according to the initiative’s 2019 petition.
Per the proposition, expungement can cover:Arrests, criminal charges and convictions relating to possession, use or transport up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana.
Cultivation of up to six plants at the person’s primary residence for personal use.
Possession or use of marijuana paraphernalia related to the cultivation or consumption of marijuana.
How to get a marijuana conviction record expunged
SALA is conducting clinics throughout the nine counties for people to receive in-person help. An attorney will review a case and the individual’s records, as well as research their legal needs while in the clinical setting.
If applicable, the attorney will then help the client fill out a petition and help them through the process of filing the petition. From there, the prosecuting agency has 30 days to review the petition and determine whether they will consent to or contest the petition to expunge. A judge can then approve or deny the petition.
Rogers has yet to see anyone’s petition denied, but she and her two partners, Olympia Torres and Joseph Falcon-Freeman, are prepared to appeal a denial if eligible.
History of marijuana legalization in ArizonaArizona legalized medical marijuana on Nov. 2, 2010 after 50.13% of voters passed the Arizona Medical Marijuana Initiative. The DHS followed up on the new program on March 28, 2011 by finalizing dispensary and registry identification card regulations.
On April 14, 2011, the DHS opened applications for registry cards that would protect patients and their caregivers from arrest. The program stipulated that patients must have specific debilitating conditions such as cancer, HIV/AIDS and Crohn’s disease in order to hold a card.
Arizonans voted against legalizing recreational use of marijuana in 2016, defeating Proposition 205 with a 51.3% vote of “no.”
Gov. Doug Ducey passed legislation in 2019 requiring dispensaries to test all medical marijuana through third-party laboratories for potency and contaminants. The law additionally made patient registry cards valid for two years instead of one.
The Arizona Supreme Court ruled in May 2019 that concentrates, edibles and other infused products are legal under the state’s medical marijuana law.
Finally, voters legalized the possession and recreational use of marijuana for adults aged 21 years and older in the state and allowed people to grow no more than six marijuana plants at home. The DHS assumed responsibility for regulating the new law, including licensing of retail stores and cultivation and production facilities.
Nine counties can seek expungement through SALASALA received funding for BEAP in August 2021 to represent individuals needing assistance across nine counties in the region: Pima and Santa Cruz County, Pinal County, Navajo/Apache/Gila Counties and Cochise/Graham/Greenlee Counties, including indigenous reservations within each county.
Despite the program’s vast reach, Rogers noted a severe lack of awareness surrounding the new program, leaving many residents still in need of assistance.
“For example, if someone was arrested for a marijuana violation, and let’s say it never ended up going to prosecution, there’s still a record of that arrest,” Rogers explained. “The arrest itself is expungeable as well, as are the charges that are contained in the police report, so that’s another factor to be aware of, but most of the public is not aware of this.”
Community stakeholders such as community service organizations, probation officers, law enforcement and legal service agencies, homeless service organizations, behavioral health organizations, employment agencies, shelters and substance abuse recovery centers are encouraged to refer anyone they know may benefit to the program.
Rogers considers the program deeply beneficial to communities as a whole, helping to alleviate “imbalance within the legal system” in regards to people with lower incomes or minority groups.
She added that having more people in society to contribute to communities is a benefit, including individuals not “hamstrung by collateral consequences” that felony convictions weighed on their lives. These past convictions often cost people their livelihoods, even after serving their sentences, making it difficult to find housing, loans, schooling or a job.
The issue can even trickle down to homelessness, she said.
“Helping those people get to a point where they can contribute to this community we live in and make that a better place – there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than that. It just seems like a natural transition for me into this type of work that I think is really going to benefit Arizona as a whole.”
Handling a marijuana conviction can be a sensitive issue, but the SALA team encourages anyone needing assistance to reach out. As attorneys, the team is bound by the ethical rules of confidentiality, Rogers noted.
Whether someone has a warrant out for their arrest or they have additional information that law enforcement and the courts may not be aware of, all information is kept confidential.
“We’re interested in doing anything that has to do with helping them get free of this stuff that’s holding them back,” said Rogers of her team’s goals. “They don’t have to worry at all with regard to contacting us.”
Residents of Graham County in need of assistance can attend SALA’s upcoming clinic on Feb. 2, 2-5 p.m. at the Graham County Courthouse in Safford on the second floor.