This weekend, Alaska took steps to end discrimination against people charged with low-level marijuana possession. Alaska legalized marijuana back in November of 2014, but legislators had yet to address the issue of prior marijuana charges. While the federal government threatens to revamp the War on Drugs, the Alaska House passes measure to erase prior marijuana convictions. This legislation will translate more employment opportunities for people, especially people of color, convicted for low-level cannabis possession.
On April 15, the Alaska House passes measure to erase prior marijuana convictions by a vote of 30 to 10. According to an official memo released by the Alaska House Majority Coalition, House Bill 316 will “protect Alaskans’ ability to go to work despite past convictions for marijuana possession.”
This means that the state won’t give the public access to arrest records for marijuana possession. Specifically, the online database known as the Alaska Courtview System will clear VIA controlled substance misdemeanors. This legislation applies to charges preceding February 24, 2015, the first day of legalization.
Until now, recreational marijuana legislation in Alaska failed to address prior marijuana charges. “This piece of the law was overlooked by the drafters of the initiative,” Rep. Drummond explained to KTUU in Anchorage. “And it’s been included in voter initiatives and laws that have passed in other states.”
Now that the House has voted in favor of Bill 316, the Alaskan Senate will consider it.
Rep. Harried Drummond, a Democrat from Anchorage, introduced this legislation to the House. The Democratic majority’s official press release quotes Rep. Drummond’s address the House Judiciary Committee last week. She explains:
“This bill is not a get out of jail card; it’s a reasonable approach to allow Alaskans to get jobs currently unavailable to them because they did something that Alaskans have voted repeatedly they believe should be entirely legal. […]
This bill does not benefit drug dealers. Rather, it helps mothers and fathers clear their names from past mistakes, allows many of our friends and neighbors to apply for jobs they didn’t think they could ever get, and strengthens communities by providing new opportunities for those who continue to be held back by something that is no longer against the rules.”
In California, the legislation that legalized recreational marijuana also cleared or lessened the charges against people convicted of low-level marijuana possession. Colorado, Maryland and Oregon have passed similar measures with the same objective.
However, marijuana legislation is far from perfect: Colorado hasn’t released everyone imprisoned for non-violent marijuana-related crimes. Overall, lawmakers are moving towards sealing marijuana arrest records, with intense support and censure from the public.
Member of the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association Cary Carrigan supports Bill 316. Carrigan told KTUU, “I think we need to move more toward normalization with cannabis in society. I don’t think people need to have this kind of stigma follow them around for small mistakes.”
Advocates argue that people shouldn’t have arrest records for something that is now legal. Critics say that marijuana was illegal at the time, so charges still apply. Carolyn Tyler, spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s office in Colorado, wrote to the Denver Post about Colorado’s laws: “It creates a horrible precedent by retrofitting criminal sanctions for past conduct every time a new law is changed or passed.”
This weekend, Alaska joined other states with legal recreational marijuana in taking the first steps to restrict public access to marijuana-related arrest records. This legislation will, in theory, give Alaskans more job opportunities. It also highlights the growing chasm between state and federal marijuana regulations.
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