Originally published in the Anchorage Press.
The House of Representatives approved HB 316 by a 30-10 vote on April 15. On April 25, HB 316 reached the Senate Finance Committee. The bill helps seal public documents relating to marijuana possession convictions prior to Feb. 24, 2015, when marijuana was legalized in Alaska. This bill has the potential to offer relief to Alaskans who were caught with less than an ounce of marijuana at the wrong place and the wrong time.
“There are lots of folks in Alaska who did something dumb, and they have simple possession convictions that show up on their record. A prospective employer might look them up on Courtview,” Drummond said. “You know, mom and dads, neighbors and friends who made a mistake in their past, or were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time have had to deal with this barrier that has the potential to keep them from a better life.”
Rep. Drummond introduced HB 316 on Jan. 31. The bill wouldn’t expunge any convictions, but seal appropriate convictions from the public. Law enforcement would continue to have access to the records, which the Department of Public Safety confirmed and acknowledged at the committee meeting.
Drummond said this bill was inspired by other states that have legalized marijuana, and addresses convictions that were once illegal in the past, and now completely legal.
“They really have done nothing wrong in the eyes of the law as of 2015,” Drummond said. “Other states that have legalized recreational marijuana have included this sealing of records for simple possession along with their establishment of the marijuana laws in the first place.”
The Alaska Civil Liberties Union called into the committee meeting to voice their support of the bill. Casey Reynolds, communications director for ACLU, said that the bill would help bridge racial disparity for marijuana convictions in Alaska.
“Both nationally, and here in Alaska, there’s a huge racial disparity between the enforcement of marijuana-related laws along racial grounds. Even though whites and minority folks tend to use marijuana at the same rates,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds’ said, according to census and arrest date, that African-Americans make up 3.3 percent of Alaska’s population, but used to make up 7 percent of marijuana arrests; Alaska Natives and American Indians make up 14.8 percent of the population, but made up 23.5 percent of the arrests.
“So there was clearly a racial disparity,” Reynolds said. “When Alaska decided to make marijuana legal, they went a long way towards remedying some of that racial disparity in the Alaska criminal justice system. We see HB 316 simply as the completion of that effort.”
The biggest question at the Senate Finance Committee meeting was brought about by Chair of the committee, Sen. Anna MacKinnon, (R-Eagle River). MacKinnon questioned the responsibility and the purpose of going “back in time, and changing convictions.” Alaska State Troopers, Capt. Dan Lowden, acknowledged that Sen. MacKinnon’s question was one he had heard many people discuss.
“We’re trying to be very neutral on this. I’ve heard many folks discuss this issue and think that’s part of the crux of the matter,” Lowden said.
During the meeting, the committee also clarified that anyone with any other convictions of any kind, would not have their marijuana possession conviction sealed. The bill only seals the records of a single, marijuana possession conviction.
Legislative Research Services, a nonpartisan researcher for the legislature, found that from 2007-2017, 719 people were convicted of marijuana possession. MacKinnon said her staff would double-check to make sure that there is no one currently incarcerated in Alaska for this conviction, but most on the committee believed there was no such case.