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Alaska Legislature

Now that marijuana is legal in Alaska, this bill would hide misdemeanor pot convictions

Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage, speaks on the House floor last year. (Marc Lester / ADN)

A new bill in the Legislature aims to seal Alaskans' convictions for low-level marijuana possession — nearly four years after voters approved a citizens initiative to legalize the drug's commercial sale.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Harriet Drummond, who introduced House Bill 316 last week, said authorities in other places are doing the same thing. San Francisco's district attorney recently announced he would move to dismiss and seal more than 3,000 marijuana-related misdemeanors after Californians' 2016 vote to legalize the drug, which took effect last month.

Drummond, in a phone interview Tuesday from Juneau, said her proposal would make it easier for Alaskans with marijuana possession convictions to get jobs and find places to live.

"To continue to punish people who did something before February of 2015 that is now legal and that people are making money off of just isn't right," said Drummond, referring to the date that Alaska's legalization initiative went into effect.

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Drummond said her bill is aimed at removing misdemeanor convictions for marijuana possession — of less than 1 ounce — from the state's online court records database, Courtview, as well as from physical files in courthouses. That would make such convictions harder to find for potential landlords and employers, who sometimes use Courtview to screen applicants.

Drummond's legislation aims to affect only cases that don't involve additional charges or drugs, she said, adding that it would still allow the court system to access information about past marijuana-related convictions if a person is charged with a new crime.

Drummond also wants such convictions removed from the state database used for formal background checks.

There are about 700 such convictions since 2007, according to a report Drummond requested from the nonpartisan Legislative Research Services.

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Drummond said the issue of past convictions was "overlooked" by the drafters of the 2014 initiative. But Tim Hinterberger, the University of Alaska Anchorage biology professor who chaired that effort, described the omission as a conscious decision.

A separate, failed 2000 ballot initiative included provisions granting "amnesty" for all marijuana-related acts that would have been legalized by the proposal. It also provided for destruction of relevant records and called for the study of restitution for people who were imprisoned, fined or had their property confiscated for marijuana-related crimes.

Opponents, in their formal statement against that initiative, said the restitution proposal would create a "vast state marijuana bureaucracy" and use public money for "drug dealers and users."

That proposal got 41 percent of the vote. Hinterberger said the 2014 initiative, which passed with 53 percent of the vote, might not have been approved if it included additional provisions related to past convictions.

"I don't know that, at the time, people were ready for that," Hinterberger said.

He said he thinks public opinion about marijuana has shifted since then, however.

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"We just wanted to get it passed as it was and deal with other things in the future — and the future is now," he said.

Drummond's legislation is set for its first hearing Friday in the House Judiciary Committee. It faces a tight schedule to be approved since this year is the second in the Legislature's two-year session. The legislation needs to pass both the House and Senate before taking effect.

North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill. (Nathaniel Herz / ADN)

North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he's "open to discussion" about Drummond's legislation, which he called a good start.

But he also said he's more inclined to limit the bill's application to Courtview — the public, online court records database — and allow convictions to still show up on formal background checks.

"I think because it's still a federal crime, we still have to handle it appropriately," he said.

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