AOC co-sponsors bipartisan bill to help expunge cannabis convictions

Legislation from New York congresswoman and Ohio Republican would help states erase criminal records for weed-related offenses

Alex Woodward
New York
Friday 03 December 2021 16:13
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Seth Rogan leads push for federal cannabis legislation

US Representatives Dave Joyce and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have introduced a bill to help states begin to expunge criminal records for cannabis.

The bipartisan measure from the Democratic congresswoman and Mr Joyce, an Ohio Republican and co-chair of the House Cannabis Caucus, would create a new federal programme through which the US Attorney General would help state and local governments “reduce the financial and administrative burden” of clearing convictions for cannabis-related offenses, according to a statement from Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s office.

The bill, to be named the Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungement (HOPE) Act, would set aside $20m to help “pave the way for expanded economic opportunities to thrive alongside effective investments to redress the consequences of the War on Drugs”, Mr Joyce said in a statement on 2 December.

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

Previous congressional efforts to erase cannabis convictions have been limited to federal crimes, despite state and local law enforcement handling more pot charges.

Last month, Republican representative Nancy Mace introduced a House bill to federally decriminalise cannabis and expunge federal convictions in nonviolent cases.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has also introduced the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act in the upper chamber.

In 2019, the federal government was involved in only a fraction of the 545,000 cannabis offenses charged in the US that year, according to lawmakers; the FBI charged only 5,350 people with a top-line charge for any drug offense, not just cannabis, that year.

An overwhelming majority of the more than 350,000 Americans arrested by state and local law enforcement for weed-related crimes in 2020 were charged with simple possession, according to FBI crime reports.

The grants from the HOPE Act would be used to update technology to automate the process for expungements and to support legal clinics to help people manage their cases, among other measures.

“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,” said Justin Strekal, political director of national advocacy group NORML, which has endorsed the legislation.

Cannabis remains illegal under federal law, while 36 states have allowed it for medical use, and 18 states and Washington DC have introduced measures to regulate its nonmedical use.

National public opinion has shifted dramatically over the years to favour cannabis legalisation while a majority of US states have legalised its use in some form.

A recent Pew Research poll found that as many as 91 per cent of Americans support marijuana legalisation, with 60 per cent believing it should be legal to use recreationally, and 31 per cent believing it should be allowed only for medicinal use.

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