Testimony at the Public Hearing on the Comprehensive Cannabis Legalization and Regulation Act of 2021 and the Medical Cannabis Amendment Act of 2021

Chairman Mendelson and members of the Committee, good afternoon and thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. My name is Michael Johnson Jr., and I am a Policy Analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI). DCFPI is a nonprofit organization that promotes opportunity and widespread prosperity for all residents of the District of Columbia through independent research and thoughtful policy solutions.

I am honored to discuss the record relief provisions within B24-118, The Comprehensive Cannabis Legalization and Regulation Act of 2021. DCFPI supports many provisions included in the comprehensive cannabis bill, such as: creating a streamlined and automatic expungement process for DC cannabis-related arrests, prosecutions, and convictions; and dedicating tax revenues toward individuals and communities most harmed by the failed War on Drugs.

The comprehensive bill is a crucial first step toward repairing the harms caused by decades of unjust cannabis criminalization and enforcement—particularly for DC’s Black residents. However, there are several components of this bill that should be strengthened to minimize the devastating effects of collateral consequences for those engaged in the market prior to legalization. I recommend that the comprehensive bill:

  • Set a target completion date for processing all DC Code cannabis-related offenses eligible for automatic expungement —ideally to be completed within 180 days of enactment;[1]
  • Dedicate a percentage of cannabis sales tax revenues towards providing financial and technical assistance to assist those filing a petition to have their cannabis-related offense expunged, vacated, or set-aside; and,
  • Include a clear definition of expungement.

Collateral Consequences and the Need for Urgent Record Relief

Barriers to work make up one of the starkest collateral consequences that returning citizens and those with non-conviction records face, warranting special attention to an effective and timely expungement policy in DC. As of 2017, nearly 50 percent of all DC employment regulations outlawed hiring people convicted of felonies—many without regard to the type of offense committed, according to the Urban Institute.[2] Although the Council has lifted some of these restrictions since then, returning citizens and those merely arrested for cannabis-related offenses continue to face significant barriers in securing employment, housing, and other areas. The harm bleeds into other aspects of life as well. Due to their prior records, DC Housing Authority regulations give public officials the opportunity to bar many returning citizens from subsidized housing, contributing to nearly one in five returning citizens experiencing homelessness within three months of release.[3]

As many states and localities enact cannabis legalization with varying degrees of success, the District has an opportunity to use the lessons learned and infuse true equity and restorative justice throughout a legal DC cannabis market. We can look to other states to see how cannabis legalization has failed to remove roadblocks adequately and quickly. For example, in some states, those who qualify for automatic expungement can wait up to four to five years after the enactment of their state’s comprehensive cannabis legislation.[4] This lengthy timeline is especially harmful given the continued barriers to employment, education, housing, and public benefits facing those convicted or merely arrested for engaging in acts that are no longer illegal.

Further, B24-118 authorizes a previous cannabis-related conviction to be used within determinations for granting cannabis licenses, although the proposed bill states that one’s previous cannabis conviction cannot be the sole ground for denial of a license. To further advance equity for returning citizens within the adult-use market, the Council should prohibit in licensing determinations the consideration of previous felony convictions to minimize bias within the determination process.

In order to meet the urgency this issue deserves is to set a target completion date for processing all DC Code cannabis-related offenses eligible for automatic expungement — ideally to be completed within 180 days after its enactment. This could improve employment, educational, and other outcomes and help grow a stronger, more inclusive economy districtwide.

Greater Clarity & Funding for Record Relief Assistance

For DC residents filing a petition to have their record expunged, vacated, or set-aside as authorized under the proposed bill, this process is not only lengthy but can often be costly as well —as individuals often must take time off from work, may require legal assistance in completing a motion with the court, and can incur other unexpected costs. DCFPI strongly supports the automatic expungement provisions included within the proposed legislation and recommends that a percentage of cannabis sales tax revenue be set aside to assist those filing a motion for record-relief for cannabis-related offenses.

Moreover, the Council should include a clear definition of expungements within the proposed legislation to ensure that returning citizens are no longer barred from critical resources and opportunities. In discussions with organizational partners, advocates, and DC residents, many expressed the difficulties of distinguishing between expungement and sealing provisions within the DC Code. Given that record sealing allows entities and employers greater access to an individual’s prior record, providing a clear definition of expungement is a necessary step toward ensuring that individuals have the broadest record relief available and minimizing the barriers associated with collateral consequences.

Within the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act passed by Illinois in 2019, a definition of expungement is clearly provided which the District could look to include within this proposed bill. Their 2019 Act defines expungement as:[5]

“(E) “Expunge” means to physically destroy the records or return them to the petitioner and to obliterate the petitioner’s name from any official index or public record, or both. Nothing in this Act shall require the    physical destruction of the circuit court file, but such records relating to arrests or HB1438 Enrolled             LRB101 04919 JRG 49928 b Public Act 101-0027 charges, or both, ordered expunged shall be        impounded as required by subsections (d)(9)(A)(ii) and (d)(9)(B)(ii).”

B24-113: Medical Cannabis Amendment Act of 2021

DCFPI recognizes the steps towards ensuring that returning citizens have equitable access within the medical market as proposed by the Medical Cannabis Amendment Act of 2021. The currently proposed bill would: allow all returning citizens to work within a medical dispensary and authorize those with only certain felony convictions the opportunity to obtain ownership within medical dispensaries, cultivation centers, and testing facilities.

Although the proposed bill increases opportunities for returning citizens to gain employment and ownership within the medical industry, DCFPI urges the council to remove the current exclusions preventing those convicted of certain felony offenses within the previous three years from gaining ownership within medical dispensaries, cultivation centers, and testing facilities. The District should look toward returning citizens with cannabis-related offenses as individuals who may offer valuable insight in the transition to a legal cannabis market and remove these barriers to ownership and wealth-creation.

Adopting Proposed Reforms to Advance Racial Equity

In the District, where Black people made up 89 percent of all cannabis-related arrests between 2015 and 2019 despite representing less than half of DC’s population, approaching comprehensive record relief with greater urgency and intentionality is a racial equity imperative.[6] While the proposed bills are a step toward repairing the injustice of the drug war, DCFPI strongly urges the Council to adopt these proposed reforms to ensure those most harmed by cannabis criminalization have equitable opportunities to thrive and prosper.

Thank you for this opportunity to testify. I will be happy to answer any questions.

[1]Councilmember Christina Henderson, The RESTORE Amendment Act of 2021, April 2021.

[2] Marina Duane, Emily Reimal, and Mathew Lynch, “Criminal Background Checks and Access to Jobs: A Case Study of Washington DC, Urban Institute, July 2017, pg. 6.

[3] Public Welfare Foundation, “D.C.’s Justice Systems: An Overview”, October 2019, pg. 27.

[4] State of Illinois, Expungement of Minor Cannabis Offenses, 2020.

[5] State of Illinois, Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act, Public Act 101-0027, June 2019.

[6] Doni Crawford, Testimony of Doni Crawford for the Judiciary and Public Safety Hearing on the Record Expungement Simplification to Offer Relief and Equity Amendment Act of 2021, DC Fiscal Policy Institute, April 15, 2021.