As congressional lawmakers work to advance federal marijuana legalization, a bipartisan duo on Thursday filed a bill that would incentivize states and local governments to expunge cannabis records in their jurisdictions.
Reps. Dave Joyce (R-OH) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) are sponsoring the legislation, titled the Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungement (HOPE) Act.
It would encourage states to provide relief to people with non-violent marijuana convictions through federal grants—the State Expungement Opportunity Grant Program, run through the Department of Justice—that would help cover the administrative costs of identifying and clearing eligible cases. The bill proposes to appropriate $2 million in funding to support the program for each fiscal year starting in 2023 and ending in 2032.
Specifically, the grants could be used by states to purchase technology used to facilitate expungements at scale, automate the relief process, fund legal clinics to help people get their records cleared and support “innovative partnerships” to provide mass relief.
“Having been both a public defender and a prosecutor, I have seen first-hand how cannabis law violations can foreclose a lifetime of opportunities ranging from employment to education to housing,” Joyce said in a press release. “The collateral damage caused by these missed opportunities is woefully underestimated and has impacted entire families, communities, and regional economies.”
Goes to show that lawmakers don’t have to agree on everything to find common ground on solutions to the challenges facing everyday Americans. https://t.co/lqWmY6uoKH
— Dave Joyce (@RepDaveJoyce) December 2, 2021
“By helping states establish and improve expungement programs for minor cannabis offenses, the HOPE Act will pave the way for expanded economic opportunities to thrive alongside effective investments to redress the consequences of the War on Drugs,” the congressman said.
Ocasio-Cortez said that “as we continue to advocate for the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana, this bipartisan bill will provide localities the resources they need to expunge drug charges that continue to hold back Americans, disproportionately people of color, from employment, housing and other opportunity.”
As we continue to advocate for the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana, this bill will provide needed resources to expunge drug charges that continue to hold back Americans – disproportionately people of color – from employment, housing and other opportunity.
— Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@RepAOC) December 2, 2021
Under the bill, state governors and local governments “shall submit to the attorney general an application at such time, in such manner, and containing such information as the attorney general may reasonably require” to qualify for the grants.
Further, the legislation would require the attorney general to carry out a study on the impacts of cannabis convictions on individuals, as well as the financial costs for states that incarcerate people over non-violent marijuana offenses.
Officials in jurisdictions that receive the grants would be required to “publish on a publicly accessible website information about the availability and process of expunging convictions for cannabis offenses, including information for individuals living in a different jurisdiction who were convicted of a cannabis offense in that jurisdiction.”
They would also need to “submit to the attorney general a report describing the uses of such funds, and how many convictions for cannabis offenses have been expunged using such funds.”
While the proposal wouldn’t end federal marijuana prohibition, it would help facilitate relief at the state level where most cannabis arrests take place in the U.S.
The bill also holds bipartisan appeal. It’s an important, albeit incremental, move to right the wrongs of the drug war, as progressives have been fighting for; it’s also narrowly tailored, simply giving an incentive to states to enact a reform that has majority support among the public.
“This bipartisan effort represents the growing consensus to reform marijuana policies in a manner that addresses the harms inflicted by prohibition,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said. “It provides cash assistance for state and localities that are wisely choosing to remove these stigmatizing records. There is no justification for continuing to prevent tens of millions of Americans from fully participating in their community and workforce simply because they bear the burden of a past marijuana conviction.”
“Ultimately, efforts to provide necessary relief to those who carry the scarlet letter of a marijuana conviction must be carried out primarily by state and local officials,” he said. “Having this federal incentive available will go a long way toward empowering local leaders and citizens to take these steps to address the past injustices brought about by the failed policy of marijuana prohibition, and will also move us closer toward embracing more reasonable cannabis policies.”
What’s more, while there’s been an open question about what President Joe Biden would do with a broad marijuana reform bill if it arrived on his desk given his ongoing opposition to adult-use legalization, he’s repeatedly said that nobody should be incarcerated over cannabis and that records should be expunged, so this proposal could potentially garner his favor.
There’s a similar provision to incentivize state-level expungements included in the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act that cleared the House Judiciary Committee in September. But that legislation is far more wide-ranging in that it would federally deschedule cannabis.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are finalizing their own bill to federally legalize marijuana.
More recently, GOP lawmakers filed a legalization bill that is being framed as a compromise between progressive proposals and more scaled-back legislation that Republican legislators have introduced in recent sessions. It also contains expungements provisions.
Read the full text of the new marijuana expungements bill below: