A Washington, D.C. bill to automatically expunge certain marijuana possession records took effect last week following a congressional review.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) allowed the broad criminal justice reform legislation to be enacted without her signature in January. It was then transmitted to Congress, where lawmakers declined to overturn it, and became effective on March 10.
The D.C. Council unanimously passed the Second Chance Amendment Act in December.
Prior to passage, lawmakers adopted an amendment from Councilmember Christina Henderson (D) that clarified the expungements language, specifying that records related to possession of “any quantity of marijuana” before the District’s legalization law took effect in February 2015 would need to be automatically expunged by the courts.
D.C. legalized possession of up to two ounces of cannabis, but criminal records don’t always reflect the quantity, “so the court and litigants cannot tell from the record itself whether the record qualifies as decriminalized conduct,” the rationale section of Henderson’s amendment to the now-enacted law says.
“Including all simple possession, rather than just possession of 2 ounces or less, clarifies the intent and allows the court and litigants to better implement the law,” it says.
Here’s the text of the revised expungements section that has become law:
“The Court shall order automatic expungement of all criminal records and court proceedings related only to citations, arrests, charges, or convictions for the commission of a criminal offense that has subsequently been decriminalized, legalized, or held to be unconstitutional by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia or the Supreme Court of the United States, or records related only to simple possession for any quantity of marijuana in violation of D.C. Code § 48-904.01(d)(1) before February 15, 2015…”
Expungements will need to be processed by January 1, 2025, or “within 90 days after termination of the case by the prosecutor or final disposition, whichever is later.”
Previously, the bill broadly said that the court “shall order automatic expungement of all criminal records and court proceedings related only to citations, arrests, charges, or convictions for the commission of a criminal offense that has subsequently been decriminalized, legalized, or held to be unconstitutional.”
NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano celebrated the new law in a blog post on Wednesday, saying that “thousands of D.C. residents unduly carry the burden and stigma of a past conviction for behavior that District lawmakers, most Americans and a growing number of states no longer consider to be a crime.”
“Our sense of justice and our principles of fairness demand that the courts move swiftly to right the past wrongs of cannabis prohibition and criminalization,” he said.
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Meanwhile, even as the Biden administration works to promote the idea of taking a new approach to marijuana policy, the president is again proposing to keep banning D.C. from allowing cannabis sales.
While President Joe Biden’s newly released budget request for Fiscal Year 2024 does maintain a long-standing appropriations rider to prevent Justice Department interference in state- and territory-level medical cannabis programs that advocates support, they are dismayed to see D.C.’s autonomy on marijuana commerce is being targeted by the president for the third year in a row.
D.C. voters approved cannabis legalization at the ballot in 2014, but the rider from Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) has represented a major obstacle that has kept local lawmakers from enacting commerce legislation that’s been put forward over recent years.
District lawmakers have taken several steps to expand cannabis access while being bound by the Harris rider. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) signed legislation in January to expand the District’s current medical cannabis program. Among other provisions, it contains language codifying that adults can self-certify as medical marijuana patients without a doctor’s recommendation, effectively circumventing the congressional blockade, for example.
That legislation was transmitted to Congress for review in February and is expected to become law on March 28.
While congressional lawmakers allowed the enactment of the D.C. criminal justice reform legislation with the marijuana expungements provision, they did recently vote to overrule a separate local measure to significantly revise the jurisdiction’s criminal code—an action supported by the president that’s similarly generated criticism from statehood advocates.
In the interim, D.C. lawmakers continue to introduce cannabis sales measures, which they’re allowed to discuss as long as the reforms aren’t enacted, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).