AOC And GOP Lawmaker Push For Expungement of Marijuana Offenses

bipartisan bill aims to help states with expunging cannabis offenses
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WASHINGTON, DC – Thursday, Congressman Dave Joyce (OH-14), who is a Co-Chair of the House Cannabis Caucus, and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) introduced the Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungement (HOPE) Act.

This bipartisan bill aims to help states with expunging cannabis offenses by reducing the financial and administrative burden of such efforts through federal grants. Both lawmakers have advocated for cannabis reform on their respective sides of the aisle, with Congressman Joyce sponsoring the first Republican-led effort to decriminalize cannabis at the federal level in the U.S. House.

“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,” said Joyce. “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.”

“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,” said Ocasio-Cortez.

Prior to the introduction of the HOPE Act, Congress’ cannabis expungement efforts have focused solely on federal crimes. However, while a small number of individuals may qualify for the expungement of low-level, federal cannabis charges over the course of decades of enforcement, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of cannabis-related charges are handled by state and local law enforcement. In 2019, the federal government was only involved in a fraction of the 545,000 cannabis offenses charged in the United States. That year, the FBI charged only 5,350 individuals with a top-line charge for any drug offense, not just cannabis.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that expungement programs for cannabis-related offenses have recently advanced in states and cities around the country, many criminal record keeping systems are not ready for or able to support these efforts. Many criminal records, especially ones from decades in the past, are not digitized. Paper records systems not only slow the expungement process but make it much more expensive and burdensome.

The HOPE Act would address these complications by creating a new grant program under the U.S. Department of Justice, the State Expungement Opportunity Grant Program, and authorize it to be funded up to $20 million over the span of Fiscal Years 2023-2032. Through this grant program, the Attorney General would be authorized to make grants to states 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 of such offenses under the laws of the State.

Funding provided by the State Expungement Opportunity Grant Program could be used:

  • for technology to provide cost-effective legal relief at scale;
  • to automate the process of expunging convictions for cannabis offenses;
  • for clinics, including legal clinics, that assist individuals through the expungement process;
  • to implement a notification process for those whose records are expunged as well as to publish publicly accessible information regarding the availability and process of expungement;
  • to seal records of conviction for cannabis offenses if appropriate; and
  • for other innovative partnerships to provide wide-scale relief to individuals who are eligible for the expungement of a conviction for a cannabis offense under the laws of the State.

The bill would also require the Attorney General to conduct a study on the impact of cannabis offenses on an individual’s criminal record, including impacts related to housing, employment, recidivism, and how such effects differ based on demographics. The study must also include a report on the costs incurred by states for incarcerating an individual convicted of a cannabis offense.

“Cannabis prohibition has saddled countless Americans, particularly people of color, with criminal histories that harm job prospects, limit housing options and close off educational opportunities,” said Steven Hawkins, CEO of U.S. Cannabis Council. “The HOPE Act can help provide desperately needed relief to millions of Americans by facilitating state and local expungement of nonviolent cannabis offenses. We applaud Reps. David Joyce and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for their leadership and strongly urge Congress to adopt their proposal.”

“This bipartisan effort represents the growing consensus to reform marijuana policies in a manner that addresses the harms inflicted by prohibition,” said NORML Political Director Justin Strekal. “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.”

“At this point, most Americans live in a state that has legalized marijuana to some extent,” said Maritza Perez, Office of National Affairs Director for Drug Policy Alliance. “This bill will provide immediate relief to countless individuals who are still suffering the consequences of the war on drugs. 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.”

“Criminal and economic justice is the cornerstone of any federal cannabis reform effort,” said Andrew Freedman, Executive Director of the Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation. “The bipartisan Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungement (HOPE) Act seeks to redress and restore communities negatively impacted by the disparate enforcement of drug laws. CPEAR welcomes the introduction of this proposal as part of a growing consensus for cannabis reform and applauds U.S. House Cannabis Caucus Co-Chair Dave Joyce and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for their leadership on this issue.”

“Today, millions of Americans struggle to access housing, educational opportunities, and gainful employment simply because they have a cannabis criminal record,” said Sarah Gersten, Executive Director and General Counsel of Last Prisoner Project. “This means that for too many, something as small as a marijuana possession arrest has effectively sentenced them to a lifetime of poverty. These policies needlessly destroy lives and hurt all American communities. The HOPE Act will remove these unjust, arbitrary and counterproductive barriers by helping states expunge millions of low-level marijuana convictions. We’re grateful to Representative Joyce and Representative Ocasio-Cortez for working across the aisle to put forward this popular and commonsense cannabis criminal justice reform. We look forward to working with their offices to get the bill across the finish line.”

“NCR is gratified to see this demonstration of bipartisan cooperation between Congressman Joyce and Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez,” said Saphira Galoob, Executive Director of National Cannabis Roundtable (NCR). “As lawmakers look for common ground to achieve comprehensive cannabis reform, incremental steps – such as the expungements that would be made possible by this bill – are critical to the lives of millions of Americans today. Too many Americans have suffered the lasting and harmful consequences of convictions for conduct that is now deemed lawful under their state’s laws. We applaud Mr. Joyce and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez for their leadership in addressing what is a real and tangible issue for so many.”

“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, the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA). “Getting these charges expunged can be prohibitively expensive for both state governments and individuals hoping to clear their records and get their lives back. This funding legislation would be a great step toward both providing relief for many thousands of prohibition victims and aligning federal policies with the growing national consensus that no one should have been arrested for cannabis in the first place. We thank Reps. Joyce and Ocasio-Cortez for their leadership on this important criminal justice issue.”

The bipartisan HOPE Act is endorsed by the U.S. Cannabis Council, NORML, CPEAR, National Cannabis Roundtable (NCR), Last Prisoner Project, NCIA, and Drug Policy Alliance.

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