Lawmakers in the nation's capital voted Tuesday to make it easier than in any state for people who have marijuana convictions to have their criminal records sealed, the latest effort by the city to liberalize its pot laws.
Approval of the bill follows the D.C. Council's move earlier this year to decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot. People caught with an ounce or less of marijuana are now subject to a $25 fine, one of the lowest in the nation. Next month, voters will decide whether possession of up to two ounces of pot should be legal in the District of Columbia.
Councilmember David Grosso, an independent, said thousands of people would be able to take advantage of the record-sealing bill, calling it a necessary companion to decriminalization or legalization. It was approved unanimously by the liberal-leaning council.
"If we are going to decriminalize or legalize marijuana under the guise of social justice, we have to allow people who are disproportionately impacted by the old laws to go back to living their lives without consequence or stigma,'' said Grosso, who introduced the bill.
Many states that have legalized or decriminalized pot allow nonviolent marijuana offenders to apply for their records to be sealed or expunged, but most require a waiting period of two years or more. The District's bill is unique because it would allow people to file a motion to seal their record at any time, and judges would be required to grant the motion for any person who meets the criteria, which include a lack of any other criminal convictions. The burden would rest with the judge to present evidence showing that a motion should be denied.
In the states that have legalized marijuana, Colorado does not allow prior convictions to be expunged, and in Washington state, convictions can be vacated only after a waiting period that can stretch to five years.
Paul Zukerberg, a criminal defense attorney and a candidate for attorney general in the District, said he had hundreds of clients who would benefit from the record-sealing bill, especially when applying for jobs or housing. But he noted that it's hard to erase a record entirely after it has spent years in public databases.
"It's not a panacea, but it's a huge improvement,'' Zukerberg said.
Advocates for the legalization of marijuana said the bill was a step toward social and racial justice. Studies have shown that blacks are arrested for marijuana offenses at disproportionate rates in the District.
"We've moved from, 'Let's stop punitive policies,' to `Let's undo the damage that's already been done.' I think that's a significant jump,'' said Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. "I think D.C. is setting a really good model by making it easy for people to get their records sealed.''
Will Jones III, an organizer with a group that opposes marijuana legalization in the city, said he also supported the record-sealing bill and that its passage makes legalization even less of a priority.