Walz appoints former city attorney to lead cannabis expungement board

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz has appointed James Rowader, a former Minneapolis city attorney, as the executive director of the cannabis expungement board. The board was created to review and expunge cannabis-related convictions in light of the legalization of cannabis in the state.

The cannabis expungement board is a new entity that was established by the Adult-Use Cannabis Act, which was passed by the state legislature and signed by Walz in 2023. The act legalized the possession, consumption, and sale of cannabis for adults 21 and older in Minnesota, and also created a regulatory framework for the cannabis industry.

The act also recognized the need to address the historical and ongoing harms of cannabis prohibition, especially on communities of color, who have been disproportionately arrested and incarcerated for cannabis offenses. The act created the cannabis expungement board to review and expunge cannabis-related convictions that are no longer crimes under the new law.

The board consists of seven members, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the senate, who have expertise in criminal justice, public health, social justice, and cannabis policy. The board is independent of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which is responsible for automatically expunging certain low-level cannabis offenses from its system.

The board is tasked with reviewing felony and certain misdemeanor cannabis convictions, and determining if they are eligible for expungement or resentencing. The board can also grant relief to individuals who apply for it, or who are referred by the courts, prosecutors, or public defenders. The board is expected to start reviewing cases by the end of 2024.

The appointee: A former city attorney with a diverse background

James Rowader is the first executive director of the cannabis expungement board. He was appointed by Walz on Wednesday, and will start his duties on March 25.

Rowader has a diverse background in law, public service, and human rights. He is currently the director of people and culture for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, where he oversees the human resources, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and organizational development functions.

Before joining the ACLU, Rowader was a city attorney for Minneapolis, where he handled civil litigation, labor and employment, and civil rights matters. He also served as the vice president and general counsel for employee and labor relations at Target Corporation, where he managed a team of attorneys and professionals who provided legal advice and counsel on labor and employment issues.

Rowader has also been involved in various community and professional organizations, such as the Minnesota State Bar Association, the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers, and the Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association. He has also been recognized for his leadership and legal talent by several awards and honors, such as the Minnesota Lawyer’s Diversity and Inclusion Award, the Hennepin County Bar Association’s Excellence Award, and the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 Award.

Rowader said he is honored and humbled to be appointed by Walz, and that he is excited to lead the cannabis expungement board.

“Throughout my career, I have been focused on supporting efforts to reduce and eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in the employment space and criminal justice system,” Rowader said. “I am truly excited to apply my leadership experiences and continue to do meaningful and impactful work to address these disparities as the inaugural leader of this important organization dedicated to the review of cannabis felonies for expungement or resentencing.”

The reaction: A mix of praise and criticism

The appointment of Rowader as the executive director of the cannabis expungement board has received a mix of praise and criticism from various stakeholders and observers.

Walz praised Rowader as a qualified and experienced leader, who will play a critical role in addressing and reducing disparities in the criminal justice system.

“I’m proud to appoint James Rowader as executive director of the cannabis expungement board,” Walz said. “The board will play a critical role in addressing and reducing disparities in our criminal justice system. Rowader has demonstrated leadership and legal talent across public, private, and nonprofit sectors, and I’m confident in his ability to lead this work.”

Some cannabis advocates and activists also welcomed Rowader’s appointment, and expressed hope that he will bring a fair and compassionate approach to the expungement process.

“James Rowader is a great choice for the executive director of the cannabis expungement board,” said Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and the founder of the Racial Justice Network. “He has a proven track record of fighting for justice and equity in the legal system, and he understands the impact of cannabis prohibition on communities of color. We look forward to working with him and the board to ensure that thousands of Minnesotans who have been harmed by cannabis convictions can get a second chance.”

However, some cannabis opponents and critics also questioned Rowader’s appointment, and argued that he is too biased and lenient towards cannabis offenders.

“James Rowader is a terrible choice for the executive director of the cannabis expungement board,” said Paul Gazelka, the Republican leader of the state senate. “He has a history of siding with criminals and activists, and he has no respect for the rule of law. He will undermine the public safety and the integrity of the criminal justice system. We will not confirm his appointment, and we will oppose any efforts to expunge cannabis convictions that are still crimes in most states and at the federal level.”

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