Two House lawmakers this week reintroduced bipartisan legislation to support states that enact policies to expunge convictions for past cannabis offenses. The bill, the Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungement (HOPE) Act, was introduced on Wednesday by Republican Representative Dave Joyce of Ohio and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York.
If passed, the HOPE Act would provide federal grants to help states with the financial and administrative burden of expunging past convictions for marijuana-related offenses. The bill was previously introduced in 2021 but failed to be scheduled for a hearing or a vote in the previous Congress. The lawmakers behind the bill, who have been vocal advocates of cannabis policy reform at the federal level, said that expunging records can help reduce the lasting impact of a conviction for a minor criminal offense.
“The vast majority of petty, non-violent cannabis law violations take place on the state and local level, precluding millions of Americans from fundamental opportunities such as housing and employment,” Joyce said in a statement. “As both a former public defender and prosecutor, I understand firsthand how these barriers can negatively impact families and economic growth in Ohio and across the nation. The HOPE Act works to remove those barriers in a bipartisan manner to pave the way for the American Dream and remedy the unjust war on cannabis.
The legislation would provide up to $20 million in federal grants over 10 years to state and local governments to clear records of past marijuana convictions. Funding could be used to implement technology to clear large amounts of records automatically, clinics to assist individuals eligible for expungement, notification systems to inform people when their records have been cleared, administrative costs to seal records, and partnerships to assist with expunge records at scale.
“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.
Brian Vicente, founding partner of the cannabis law firm Vicente LLP, said that the legislation complements an executive order issued by President Joseph Biden last year that pardoned all federal convictions for simple cannabis possession. At the time, the president called on governors to take similar action at the state level and wrote on Twitter that “Sending people to jail for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives — for conduct that is legal in many states.”
“The HOPE Act is true to its name. Its reintroduction by the ‘odd-couple’ of liberal Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and conservative Rep. Joyce shows the world that bipartisan support for marijuana reform exists at the highest level of government,” Vicente wrote in an email to High Times. “It reinforces the fact that key members of Congress agree with the majority of the American public—adults who use marijuana should not face criminal sanctions. This bill would put some real teeth behind President Biden’s 2022 declared interest in pardoning people with federal marijuana convictions by providing significant funding to state programs to expunge state-level marijuana offenses.”
The reintroduction of the HOPE Act drew quick praise from activists and cannabis industry representatives including the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and the National Cannabis Roundtable, a trade group that advocates for continued cannabis policy reform.
“The HOPE Act promises just that: hope and a second chance for people suffering the lifelong consequences of a state-level marijuana possession arrest,” NORML political director Morgan Fox said in a statement. “As more states repeal their failed policies of criminalizing marijuana consumers, it is incumbent upon Congress to assist them in repairing the associated harms it helped perpetuate for decades. This legislation is a great step toward righting the wrongs caused by prohibition and improving the lives of millions of people nationwide.”
Saphira Galoob, executive director of the National Cannabis Roundtable, said that “only through expungements can we lift the barriers on employment, education, and housing opportunities for those who have already been unjustly harmed by federal prohibition. With cannabis programs now in 38 states, to continue to hold back and punish individuals for what is now a state-legal activity is the definition of unjust, and NCR thanks U.S. Representatives Joyce and Ocasio-Cortez for their efforts to have Congress help correct these wrongs at long last.”