“Goes to show that lawmakers don’t have to agree on everything to find common ground on solutions to the challenges facing everyday Americans.”

By Brett Wilkins, Common Dreams

Drug war foes welcomed the introduction Thursday in the U.S. House of Representatives of a bipartisan bill to help states expunge cannabis convictions by reducing costs and red tape through a new federal program.

Reps. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) teamed up to introduce the Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungement (HOPE) Act. If passed, the measure would create a new federal initiative—the State Expungement Opportunity Grant Program—through which the U.S. attorney general could dispense funds to state and local governments “to reduce the financial and administrative burden of expunging convictions for cannabis offenses that are available to individuals who have been convicted,” according to Ocasio-Cortez’s office.

“Goes to show that lawmakers don’t have to agree on everything to find common ground on solutions to the challenges facing everyday Americans,” tweeted Joyce, who earlier this year co-sponsored the first GOP-led legislation to federally decriminalize cannabis.

“Having been both a public defender and a prosecutor, I have seen firsthand how cannabis law violations can foreclose a lifetime of opportunities ranging from employment to education to housing,” he continued. The collateral damage caused by these missed opportunities is woefully underestimated and has impacted entire families, communities, and regional economies.”

“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,” Joyce added.

Ocasio-Cortez said in a statement 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.”

State Expungement Opportunity Grant Program funding could be used for:

  • Technology to provide cost-effective legal relief at scale;
  • Automation of the process of expunging convictions for cannabis offenses;
  • Clinics, including legal clinics, that assist individuals through the expungement process;
  • Implementation of a notification process for those whose records are expunged;
  • Sealing records of conviction for cannabis offenses if appropriate; and
  • Other innovative partnerships to provide wide-scale relief to individuals who are eligible for the expungement of a conviction for a cannabis offense.

Cannabis legalization advocates welcomed the new bill.

Hands in handcuffs with a marijuana leaf overlaid
Photo by Vectorportal

“This bipartisan effort represents the growing consensus to reform marijuana policies in a manner that addresses the harms inflicted by prohibition,” said Justin Strekal, political director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “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.”

Maritza Perez, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance, noted that “at this point, most Americans live in a state that has legalized marijuana to some extent.”

“This bill will provide immediate relief to countless individuals who are still suffering the consequences of the war on drugs,” she contended. “An expungement will allow greater employment, education, and housing opportunities, among other life-changing freedoms. The Drug Policy Alliance is proud to support this bill.”

According to NORML:

Legislatures in over a dozen states have enacted laws explicitly facilitating the expungement of low-level cannabis convictions. State officials have vacated an estimated 2.2 million marijuana-related convictions under these laws over the past two years.

According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, over 350,000 Americans were arrested by state and local law enforcement for marijuana crimes in 2020. Ninety-one percent of those arrested were charged with simple possession. Since 2010, state and local police have arrested an estimated 7.3 million Americans for violating marijuana laws.

“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,” asserted Strekal. “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.”