Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Dave Joyce (R-OH) have teamed up on a new bill that would allow hundreds of thousands of Americans to clear minor weed offenses from their criminal records.
This bipartisan proposal, officially titled The Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungement (HOPE) Act, would allocate $20 million of federal funding to help state governments expunge marijuana-related criminal records. This bill would create a “State Expungement Opportunity Grant Program” offering grants to help states fund the expensive and time-consuming process of identifying and clearing eligible convictions. Two million dollars in grants would be made available every year between 2023 to 2032.
“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 in a statement. “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.”
Congress is already considering two other comprehensive federal cannabis legalization bills that would also help former pot offenders clear their records. The MORE Act, which passed the House in 2020 and is up for debate again this year, includes provisions to expunge cannabis crimes, as does the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act proposed by the Senate's Democratic leadership. The expungement provisions in these bills focus on clearing federal weed crimes, though, and not state-level charges.
According to Joyce, 545,000 Americans were busted for pot in 2019, but more than 90 percent of these arrests were made by state and local cops, not federal law enforcement. FBI data reports that state cops have arrested over 7 million Americans for weed since 2010, not to mention the millions more arrested during the height of the War on Drugs. And even though the total number of weed-related arrests dropped to around 350,000 last year, 91 percent of those arrests were just for minor possession.
The HOPE Act seeks to resolve this issue by funding state-level efforts to expunge cannabis crimes, rather than focusing only on federal arrests. The narrow focus of this legislation also gives it a broader chance of success than other, more progressive legalization bills. President Biden has suggested that he might veto any bill that completely ends the federal prohibition of cannabis. But during his campaign, the president did promise that he would support efforts to help former weed convicts clear their criminal records.
“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 in a press release.
“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 in a statement. “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.”