Should convicted drug dealers be allowed to sell medical marijuana?

A California law passed in October denies felons with drug convictions a license to sell medical marijuana. A new initiative would change that. 

Rich Pedroncelli/AP/File
Petition signature gatherer Peter Keyes (r.) discusses a petition to legalize marijuana, in Sacramento, Calif., on April 23. As California contemplates legalizing marijuana, the state is also debating whether to keep felons from selling it.

If you committed a felony for something that is no longer illegal, should your criminal record keep you out of the business now?

A California law denying medical marijuana licenses to those with felony convictions for drug possession answers that question with a "yes," and it touches on the debate about how long a felony record should follow someone who has served their time. 

The issue of reinstating voting for felons, for example, has been seen in terms of both partisan politics and a broader question of both protecting public safety from criminals and helping the formerly incarcerated rejoin society, as The Christian Science Monitor's Patrik Jonsson wrote:

Granting voting rights goes beyond partisan politics: It's also about how society views lawbreakers – as redeemable, or as deserving life-long punishment.  

While the franchise debate is a contentious one, a growing number of states, many of them with Republican governors, are rethinking the extent to which voting is a privilege that can be taken away from citizens who break laws. Evidence from the American Parole and Probation Association suggests that restoring the franchise reduces recidivism. 

The question could have even deeper implications for the state's pot industry, because although only medical marijuana is legal now, California voters will likely see a referendum for full marijuana legalization on the November ballot. Many current or prospective sellers of medical marijuana do have felony charges because of – for example – past drug possession. Casey O'Neill, board chairman of the marijuana group California Growers Association, told the Los Angeles Times' Patrick McGreevy that 25 to 30 percent of California's weed growers have felony convictions.

The current initiative, if passed by referendum in November, would change the law to permit people with felonies for drug possession of any kind to apply for a license to sell marijuana, according to the Coalition for Responsible Drug Policies for California. 

Some members of law enforcement suggested that giving felons licenses to sell marijuana supports the growing pot industry at the expense of safety. 

"This new initiative will specifically allow for convicted major meth and heroin dealers to be licensed recreational marijuana vendors in California," said Chief Ken Corney, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, in a statement. "You have to question proponents in terms of placing personal wealth and corporation profits ahead of community well-being." 

California's law enforcement has said fighting the black market by keeping felons out of these businesses is part of the reason the state requires licenses. California Assemblyman Tom Lackey (R) said the October law provides law enforcement with "clear rules for overseeing medical marijuana activities in their community—something badly lacking for the past 20 years," according to a press release for the California Police Chief Association. 

Other states where medical marijuana is legal have different approaches to the question of whether a person convicted of selling marijuana before the state legalized it deserves a legal license now. Applicants for a medical marijuana license in Colorado must have all felony charges and sentences at least five years behind them; for drug charges, their record must have been clean for ten years.

Colorado offers a case-by-case exemption for past state-level marijuana charges "that would not be a felony if the person were convicted of the offense on the date he or she applied," according to the Colorado Department of Revenue. 

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