North Dakota pardons OK’d under marijuana conviction policy

BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota’s pardon advisory board took a significant step Wednesday in wiping criminal records clean for 26 people with low-level marijuana convictions, a first under a new policy aimed at fixing problems the records have caused for people trying to find jobs and housing.

With little discussion, the five-member panel approved the pardons in a single motion, instead of individually. The list of people, who have stayed out of trouble for five years, now goes to Republican Gov. Doug Burgum, who is expected to approve the pardons.

“People will really see how easy and quick this is,” said Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who pushed for the policy that started in July.

Stenehjem estimates as many as 175,000 marijuana convictions over several decades could be eligible. The Republican said his office will contact attorneys statewide urging them to let their former clients know of the change.

Stenehjem does not support legalizing recreational pot, but he has long backed legislation that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

North Dakota already had allowed people to apply for pardons to remove marijuana-related offenses from their records, but the process was burdensome, the attorney general said. While the new policy doesn’t go as far as other states that automatically dismiss or pardon convictions, it does involve an application process.

People applying for pardons must complete a 1½-page form that law enforcement reviews before placing a case on the pardon board’s agenda. It costs nothing to apply.

Burgum has said the policy change could help address North Dakota’s workforce shortage and grow its economy. He said removing the stigma for what are minor cases from years ago in many instances allows former offenders to get second chances and contribute to their communities.

The deadline for the first round of applications for pardons under the new policy was Aug. 10. The next round’s deadline is mid-January, ahead of the board’s meeting in April, said Steve Hall, director of transitional planning services for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

For the first round, 32 people applied but six were rejected because they didn’t meet the criteria in the new policy, Hall said.

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