Ocasio-Cortez Introduces Bill to Help Clear Marijuana Charges at State Level

A bipartisan bill has been introduced in the House that aims to assist local and state governments in expungement efforts of those charged at the sub-federal level with cannabis offenses.

Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Dave Joyce (R-Ohio), introduced the Harnessing Opportunity by Pursuing Expunction (HOPE) Act. It directs the Justice Department to establish a new grant program that could provide funding of up to $20,000,000 over ten years, beginning in 2023. Local governments would receive grants to help them develop logistics and implement methods to identify and expunge cannabis charges.

The federal charges were the focus of previous bills that were aimed at removing individuals from cannabis-related charges. As the press release for the billHowever, most marijuana-related charges are handled by local and state officials.

In turn, many local governments don’t have the resources to handle expungements, either due to poor record keeping or otherwise, the lawmakers say. Some lawyers third party organizations have launched efforts in past years to fill in the gaps left by local and state authorities or to force the governments’ hands, helping individuals with cannabis-related records navigate the often complex process.

Ocasio-Cortez stated that the HOPE Act was a step towards justice. “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 opportunit[ies],” she said.

Advocates for legalization of marijuana praised the bill. “Most of the expungement conversations in Congress have focused on federal convictions, which is laudable but glosses over the fact that the vast majority of cannabis arrests occur at the state level,” said Aaron Smith, CEO of the National Cannabis Industry Association. “Getting these charges expunged can be prohibitively expensive for both state governments and individuals hoping to clear their records and get their lives back.”

The bill could bring record-keeping for local government offices into the 21st Century with the funding provided. Many local governments still rely on physical record-keeping, meaning that countless people who may be eligible to have charges expunged still have them on their records — sometimes despite not ever getting convictedFor the charge. This grant program could be used to fund technology that would digitize these records, and automate the process of expunging cannabis charges.

The bill could also help individuals by funding legal clinics and creating programs to inform people about the possibility of having their cannabis charges sealed. Many people who could be eligible to have their records expunged are not able to do so because it can be expensive and complicated. One study done last year in Michigan found that 90 percent of people eligible for expungement in Michigan haven’t applied for the process.

“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. “The collateral damage caused by these missed opportunities is woefully underestimated and has impacted entire families, communities, and regional economies.”

Under this legislation, the attorney general would be required to conduct a study on the impact of cannabis charges on an individual’s financial health, including information on how this impact can vary based on demographics. The costs associated with cannabis-related imprisonment would also be included in this study.

Expungement, which clears an individual’s record of a charge, can be an important stepHelping people get their lives back after being arrested. When marijuana charges show up on an individual’s record, the stigma of such a charge can prevent peopleFrom obtaining housing or employment. This is possible even when you are not working. in places where marijuana has been fully legalized — sometimes leaving people charged with an activity that is now lawful stuck in the cycle of poverty.

People of color have been particularly targeted for marijuana-related arrests and charges. Expungement programs could be particularly beneficial to them. In 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that Black people are more likely to be arrested or charged with marijuana-related offenses. are 3.6 times more likelyDespite the fact that marijuana consumption rates are almost identical across all races, it is possible to be arrested for possession. This disparity is evident in some areas; last year, 94 percent of New York Police Department arrestsFor marijuana were people of color.