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

A new bipartisan bill introduced in the House aims to aid local and state governments in expungement efforts for those charged with cannabis offenses at the sub-federal level.

The Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungement (HOPE) Act was introduced by Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and Dave Joyce (R-Ohio). It would direct the Justice Department to create a new grant program with up to $20 million in funding over 10 years, starting in 2023. Grants would be issued to local governments to develop logistics and implement methods for identifying and carrying out cannabis charge expungements.

Previous bills aimed at freeing individuals from cannabis charges have largely focused on federal charges. As the press release for the bill notes, however, local and state officials handle most marijuana-related charges.

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 and 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 said that the HOPE Act is a step toward 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 marijuana legalization celebrated 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.”

Funding provided by the bill could help bring record-keeping for local bureaucracies into the 21st century. 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 convicted for the charge. The grant program could help fund technology that would digitize these records and potentially automate the cannabis charge expungement process.

The bill could also provide assistance to individuals, funding legal clinics and creating a program to notify people of the potentiality of having their cannabis charges sealed or expunged. Because the process can be both expensive and complex, many people eligible to have their records expunged never do. 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. This study would also explore the costs associated with cannabis-related incarceration.

Expungement, which clears an individual’s record of a charge, can be an important step for people in getting their lives back after being charged. When marijuana charges show up on an individual’s record, the stigma of such a charge can prevent people from obtaining housing or employment. This happens even 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.

Expungement programs would be especially impactful for people of color, who have been disproportionately targeted for marijuana-related arrests or charges. In a 2020 report, the American Civil Liberties Union found that Black people are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana, even though consumption rates across all races are virtually identical. In some places, this disparity is particularly prominent; last year, 94 percent of New York Police Department arrests for marijuana were of people of color.