.Seal the Deal

Whether the bipartisan Clean Slate Act will actually pass remains, at best, an open question

Given how far apart the two major political parties are on the most basic issues—like whether reality is real—the bipartisan nature of the debates over cannabis policy seem almost weird. A fair number of Republicans favor reforming pot laws, and some Democrats oppose it.

That doesn’t mean the Republican Party as a whole isn’t the main reason reforms don’t get passed. It very much is. If Democrats held the House, and had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, pot would be legal at the federal level by now. As it is, we’re possibly years from legalization becoming a reality.

Still, many of the reform measures that come before Congress are sponsored by members from both parties. That’s the case again with the latest attempt to require that the criminal records of non-violent federal cannabis convictions be automatically sealed. The bill is sponsored by Reps. Lisa Blunt Rochester, a Democrat from Delaware, and Nancy Mace, a Republican of South Carolina.

Whether the proposed Clean Slate Act will actually pass the Republican-led House remains, at best, an open question. Similar legislation has been introduced several years in a row. Last year, it passed the Judiciary Committee, but never made it to the House floor for a vote.

President Joe Biden won accolades last year when he issued pardons for thousands of people convicted on cannabis-possession charges. But that didn’t solve the whole problem, because it did nothing to remove those convictions from people’s records. Also, the mass pardon applied only to those who were convicted up to the day Biden signed it. The Clean Slate Act would address both of those issues.

The bill’s sponsors are selling it in part as an economic measure. “As we continue to face workforce shortages impacting industries across the country and our economy, it’s never been more important to do all we can to create equitable economic opportunity for millions of Americans,” Rochester said in a statement. 

She noted that the vast majority of businesses conduct background checks on prospective employees, as do most landlords and many colleges and universities. “We know just how critical it is to give those who have served their time and paid their debt to society a clean slate and a second chance,” she said.

For people whose records, for whatever reason, aren’t automatically sealed, the proposed bill provides a process for petitioning the courts. If the petition is denied, they could try again in two years. Federal courts would be required to provide petitioners with a public defender to assist them, if needed.

As is the case in Congress, the bill’s outside backers include a set of strange bedfellows, including the Center for American Progress, the American Conservative Union, the Justice Action Network, the Brennan Center for Justice and the Clean Slate Initiative. Several employers have also signed on, including JPMorgan Chase and LinkedIn.

Legalization is moribund at the moment, thanks largely to Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has decided to make cannabis a wedge issue to make Democrats appear flighty and unserious. The filibuster rule in the Senate gives him the power to block the effort. While several Republican senators are all for legalization, there aren’t enough of them to reach 60 votes and overcome the filibuster, especially since a few Democrats—such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia—seem poised to vote against it.

But several smaller reform measures have been introduced this year. Two of them would protect financial institutions, including banks and insurance companies, from liability for working with cannabis companies. Another, from Republican Dave Joyce of Ohio and Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, would give federal grants to states and localities to expunge cannabis convictions from people’s records in states where pot is legal for adult use.

Another, also bearing Republican Joyce’s name along with that of Democrat Hakeem Jeffries of New York, is aimed at helping the government prepare for the day when pot is legal at the federal level, in part by creating a commission to devise a regulatory scheme.

Hopefully, that commission’s members will still be alive when their work is implemented.

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