Arizona voters legalized marijuana with the passage of Proposition 207 in November 2020. And soon after, in January 2021, recreational marijuana sales took effect at dispensaries across the state.
But as lines of customers traced along glass cases of marijuana flower, concentrate and paraphernalia, tens of thousands of Arizonans had marijuana charges still clinging to their records.
Prop 207 included a statute allowing for anyone with a marijuana charge for possessing, consuming, transporting and cultivating under 2.5 ounces of flower, six marijuana plants, 12.5 grams of concentrate or paraphernalia to petition the courts and expunge their record completely.
The courts started accepting petitions in early July, and advocacy and legal groups moved to help eligible people navigate the expungement process. But despite their best efforts, advocates say the opt-in format makes it difficult to reach the people who need expungement most, and differences in legal opinion across county lines still pose significant barriers to a clean record.
Carlos Diaz, a Glendale resident, was one of the first to get his marijuana charge expunged, and now he's made it a personal mission to share his experience. I sat down with Diaz to discuss his story, expungement and why it's so important to spread the word about the opt-in process.
Yeah, let's start. Tell me about your story. Tell me about the night you were charged. What happened?
It was, you know, 10 years ago, but I was just driving home, but I had a headlight out on my car. So I got pulled over for that. Just me being enthusiastic, I guess, or whatever, over energetic as I am, the cop maybe read that wrong or whatever. And he was like, you know, you mind, if I gave you a field sobriety? I'm like, no, not at all. Because I was fine. So I was like, yeah.
So he pulls me out and gives me a field sobriety test and I pass it. And then he was like, I'm kind of new at this. Would you mind if I call another officer over that's more of an expert on giving people field sobriety tests?
I'm like, no whatever. And so he does and we wait for that officer to show up when he does, and then I passed that one and they're like, OK, you're free to go. I'm like, all right, thanks.
And then as I'm walking back to my car, they're like, hey, by the way, do you mind if we search your car? And I'm like, no, knock yourself out.
And at the time I was driving a Mazda Miata, like a '97 Mazda Miata. It really is like a go-kart, and they find what's left of a cigarette roach or a marijuana roach underneath my passenger seat. So, I caught a charge for that, you know, misdemeanor.
So do you remember, like in that moment, when they pulled the roach out, what was the interaction like from that point? What did they say to you as soon as they found it?
They were just like, what's this? I'm like that's a roach, but the thing was, I was like how did you even find it?
You know, I'm a small person and like I said, if you know a Mazda Miata, I mean, I have a hard time getting my hand underneath the seat. So I was just surprised that they even found it, that it was even there. Who knows how long it had been there? But yeah, it wasn't good.
Then they immediately just kind of cuffed me up and I just kind of started laughing about the whole situation because it was just a bunch of BS. I mean, it really was. You know, later on, like my attorney said I was a ding-dong. I really was. I got pulled over for my headlight and that was it. And so even after the field sobriety tests — it shouldn't have even gotten to that point — but even after that point, you know, "hey we might look in your car," you should be like, nah, dude, I've been here long enough. You guys pulled me over from my headlight and that's that.
But they found it and they took me to lock up. Luckily that was close. This was all in Surprise. So they took me down and in the lock up there and processed me fairly quickly. I mean it was funny. But yeah, I had to walk back to my car. It wasn't fun.
Yeah, no, it doesn't sound like it. What was like the processing, like going in and getting the charge? What did they explain to you? What was that process like?
You know, that was funny in and of itself because it was late at night, to be honest with you, and it's Surprise, so it's not like you're going to downtown Phoenix where there's a lot of people there. So there was no one there. I mean, we were the only people there, the two cops and me, and that was it.
So we go in there and they, and they write it up and the way they wrote it up too, it was funny. Because they said that you're going to get released on your own recognizance, but we have up to six months to charge you for it. And I'm like, all right, cool. And I'm thinking as minimal amount as it was, I have no record. You know what I mean? There's nothing on my background. I thought for sure, they're not gonna charge me for it.
And I kid you not, almost six months to the day, on the sixth month, maybe not six months to the day, but in that sixth month is when I got the charges saying that, yeah, they're going to file charges for possession. I'm like, you gotta be kidding me. And so I just had to pay a fine and then just be on unsupervised probation, which is just don't get in trouble, basically. You know what I mean? You don't have to go see anybody or anything like that for a year. I think the fine was like $500 or something.
Diaz received a charge for possession of paraphernalia, a misdemeanor at the time.
So what was your reaction after receiving the charge, after kind of going, like paying the fine, going through all that process? Like how are you feeling after the fact? Angry? Frustrated? Tell me a little bit about that.
You know, not angry. Lucky that it wasn't a felony. I really didn't realize, because at the time I was, you know, I was working very well at the company I was with and I stayed with them for awhile, don't get me wrong.
So I never really thought about if I leave, I'm gonna get my background pulled and whatever. If it comes back on something bad, I was glad it was a misdemeanor. But yeah, I mean, it sucked, man, just to know that you have something on your background, you know what I mean? That, you know, like I said, luckily it wasn't a felony because felonies on applications for job applications or whatever, a lot of times it's just that. Have you ever been convicted of a felony? So obviously, you know, it's a no, no problem.
But, when you go with certain companies and they do run your background, they're going to pull up everything, even misdemeanors. So I really never knew how much that would kind of impact my future at the time. I really didn't. I thought it was BS, to be honest with you, but I just didn't think it was going to impact it gravely. Don't get me wrong. You know what I mean? I still moved on with my life and I still provided for my family and all.
From when you got the charge, those next 10 years, till you got your expungement, what were some of the obstacles you ran into? What were some of the problems that charge created for you?
I mean, it could have created a lot more problems than what it did. It really created a problem a couple of times, for me, to be honest with you. Because like I said, I was always able to find gainful employment and I'm in finance, so that's really not a hard time finding jobs that way, but I kind of wanted to switch directions with a different company.
And so I got the job twice, man. I mean, like two different times I got the job and because of their HR policy, any kind of possession of any kind of drug, like, you know, and they kind of, you know — I get cocaine, I get heroin, I get methamphetamine. I mean, I get possession of that. Yeah. It's not good. Those are bad.
But it's marijuana, but it carries the same (stigma) as those do. And so their HR policy was, you know, we wouldn't take you. And both times I got it and then the second time, the office manager, he was a cool dude. He was just like, hey buddy, I'm sorry, man. He was like, we could really use you. And he was like, we have people here with worse things on their background. He's like, I just don't get it. You know, meaning, like, violent stuff too. And that's not good.
Proposition 207, a voter referendum legalizing recreational marijuana, passed in November 2020. And with legalization came a provision requiring a process for expungement.
When it passed, I was closely watching that because this was part of that passing of it. Not only does it legalize recreational, but like I said, it gives people the chance to expunge their record.
Because it is hypocritical to have something on your record for, you know, misdemeanor stuff. Don't get me wrong. It's not like you're carrying around pounds of pot, but you know, anything less than 2.5 ounces, my little roach, you know, things like that. You can get that off your record.
I was closely watching that. And so when it was passed, I was super stoked.
In April, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, and Minorities for Medical Marijuana hosted a legal clinic at Green Goods Dispensary in Phoenix, and Fox 10 ran a segment ahead of the event to spread the word. Diaz saw the program, and jumped at the opportunity.
I'm like, heck yeah, man, you know, free legal advice. I'm all about that.
I went down there and they looked me up in the system because I didn't know my arrest date or my case number. So those two things I really needed for my paperwork, but even that paperwork was just two pieces of paper and then I signed it and then just kept it for a couple months.
The portal for expungement petitions opened on July 12. Diaz was one of the first to submit his bid.
I just went downtown because there were some people there wanting to see it done and all that. And so I went down there and like literally it took more time waiting in line and waiting to see somebody than it did to file it. I mean, it was that quick.
Thirty days. They have 30 days to say yea or nay on your petition. And so on the 30th day, I got an email saying it was approved and then like about the following week, I got paperwork in the mail that, you know, was official, signed by a judge and all that. So I was super stoked about that. It was a good day.
Yeah, absolutely. When you saw that email, what was the feeling having that charge gone after 10 years?
I was stoked. I mean, I was stoked and I really was because it shouldn't have been there to begin with, to be honest with you, man. You know what I mean? It really shouldn't have been, but it was. I get it. I got caught, I guess, with a roach under the passenger seat when at the time it wasn't legal, but now it is man. I'd be stupid not to get it off my record. You know what I mean? And so I was stoked. I mean, I really was.
It was good. It was a good feeling. It really was to get that email and then to officially get it in the mail. That was pretty cool. So yeah, I'll keep that in a nice, safe place.
Yeah, for sure.
So talk to me a little bit about the legal clinic. You know, the expungement process is not super complicated, but like you said, looking up your information, figuring out all the numbers and stuff can be a little tough. So tell me a little bit about the legal clinic and how it helped you prepare for filing your petition.
I mean the legal clinic, first and foremost, it just gives you kind of faith that the paperwork that you're filling out is correct. You know what I mean? And you're getting proper advice. And so, at first it gives you that, you know, just with that. Then they had systems through computers where I think that maybe I gave my social, I'm sure it was my social and my name obviously. They pulled it up though, like instantly and then had my arrest date and then my case number.
There's certain requirements, but as long as you fall within those requirements, man, I mean, dude, totally do it, man. I mean, it's worth the time. The legal clinic though, it was nice because like I said, you were getting legal advice, or sound legal advice, from attorneys free, which was awesome.
Diaz worked with Julie Gunnigle, director of politics at NORML, through a legal clinic to submit his petition. The duo met at the legal clinic, and then again to tweak Diaz's paperwork before he sent it off.
Were there any other big obstacles in getting the petition filed?
Not at all. No. Honestly, not at all. I mean, even if I hadn't gone downtown, taken my piece of paper and gone by myself, I could have done it myself that day, I'm sure. You know what I mean? Like I would have figured it out. But no, it was super easy, super easy, super smooth, because it's possession of marijuana. It's not like you're going down there to ask him, you know, (pardoned) for murder or something. You know what I mean? So it's just, it was smooth, man. It really was. Like I said, I think I waited more time waiting in line to get into the office to file it than I did actually filing it. I mean, it was quick.
He took it, looked at it, stapled it, made me copies, and then that was it and out the door I went. And then, like I said, 30 days. They have 30 days to give you a response. Yea or nay. And on that 30th day, I got that email saying that they did. Yes.
The Maricopa County superior court has approved over 3,500 petitions thus far, with another 1,000 or so pending.
Since Diaz received notice of his expungement, he's become a face for the expungement process. He's talked with journalists across TV, radio and print to share his story.
Yeah, you don't want to be known as like the expungement guy. I feel you, but it's getting the message out there. And I don't mind being the face of that, or not the face of it, but I don't mind telling my story.
So if someone hears it, you know what I mean? Or just how easy the process was for me to do. And that again, if you get charged, you know, with those certain requirements, to get it done, get it done. But no, it was fun. It was cool. They reached out to me a couple of times. I've done a couple of different bits with like (channels) 10 and 15. Like I said, just getting the story out there, getting the message out there.
Kind of in closing, is there anything you feel is important to add about the discussion of marijuana, whether that be speaking to people who need to get their records expunged, or just the general public about the process? Anything we may have missed?
You know, there's certain people out there, like my parents included and maybe like an older generation, that marijuana is just stigmatized as a bad drug and it's not, it's really not. Now that enough notoriety is getting made about it. I mean, enough press has been done about it, which I think is extremely awesome, which needs to be done. And so the more press and the more exposure that it can get to help people just get this thing off their record, it's just a good thing.
For more on marijuana expungement in Arizona, pick up a copy of State Press Magazine: The Disaster Issue on newsstands Sept. 8 or read it online at statepress.com/section/magazine. For the State Press, I'm Kiera Riley.
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Kiera Riley is a managing editor at State Press Magazine. She also interns at the politics desk for the Arizona Republic
Kate Ourada is in her 5th semester as the editor of the podcast desk and is doing her best to spread her love of audio journalism. She works in radio as a reporter and board operator. Kate has a passion for creative writing, her cat and making niche playlists for her friends.