Few North Dakotans seeking pardons on pot offenses

Few people have taken advantage of a policy change that lets people with low-level marijuana convictions in North Dakota petition to have their records wiped clean

BISMARCK, N.D. -- Few people have taken advantage of a policy change that lets people with low-level marijuana convictions in North Dakota petition to have their records wiped clean if they avoid unlawful behavior for five years

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who pushed for the policy change, estimates as many as 175,000 marijuana convictions over several decades could be eligible.

But records show only about three dozen people have applied to date.

“I’m rather surprised that so few people have applied,” said Stenehjem, who sits on the five-member pardon advisory board. “We will look at ways to get word out.”

Stenehjem, a Republican, said his office may reach out to attorneys statewide urging them to let their clients and former clients know of the change that took effect in July.

The change brought North Dakota in line with other states and cities that have been trying to fix problems that such past convictions have caused for people trying to find jobs and housing.

GOP Gov. Doug Burgum also endorsed the policy change, saying it could help "address our state's workforce shortage and grow the economy."

North Dakota's plan doesn't go as far as other states that automatically dismiss or pardon convictions.

Instead, people applying for pardons must complete a 1½-page online form, then law enforcement reviews the forms before placing them on the pardon board's agenda. Applications may then be approved in batches, instead of individually. It costs nothing to apply.

The deadline for the first round of applications was Aug. 10.

Stenehjem believes most people who qualify will petition for a pardon if they are aware of the new policy, which he has said "totally removes a conviction; totally removes guilt" if the pardon is approved. It also allows people to “honestly say 'no'" if asked if they have had a previous pot conviction, he said.

“I suppose there may be a certain number of people who won’t want to go through the process — but it is a very simple process,” he said.

David Owen, who has led efforts to legalize recreational marijuana in the state, applauded the new policy.

“This is a fantastic policy and I wish people would be willing to get informed,” he said. “The problem is a lot of people are uneducated on the issue.”

The state needs to do more to get the word out, he said.

Twenty-six people will be considered for pardons when the board meets on Wednesday in Bismarck. The applicants include people who now hold jobs as an officer at a credit union to an employee at the state penitentiary in Bismarck.

Those applicants contacted by The Associated Press either declined comment or did not return telephone calls.

Six other applications were denied because they didn’t meet the criteria in the new policy, said Steve Hall, director of transitional planning services for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The board meets two times a year. The next meeting is scheduled in April 2020.

Hall said only six people have applied for pardons to be considered at the next meeting.

Those who want a clean slate are going to have to make the effort for themselves, Owen said.

“In some ways, you have to control your own destiny. It is not that difficult to fill out the form,” he said, adding: “I’d do it if I had a conviction.”