The odds of success are low for the Arkansas Cannabis Industry Association (ACIA) to get legislation approved in the 2023 Arkansas General Assembly that would expunge records and/or alter jail sentences for those with marijuana convictions.
The ACIA announced Wednesday (Nov. 2) a goal of pursuing “restorative justice legislation” in 2023 to address what it considers inequities in the legal system that “disproportionately” harm poor and minority communities for cannabis-related offenses. The group said expungement would be for those with non-violent offenses related to marijuana possession.
“Our state’s cannabis trade association will spearhead changes that are overdue in Arkansas,” ACIA policy committee chair Robbin Rahman noted in the statement. “Individuals with cannabis-related convictions can be denied housing, employment opportunities, education, and even loans. Arkansans should not continue to face these kinds of obstacles based on actions that become legalized or decriminalized.”
Passage of Issue 4 would also create a need to look at reform of laws related to marijuana possession, according to the ACIA. The amendment, which is on Arkansas’ November general election ballot, would legalize recreational cannabis for adults over the age of 21 and allow them to possess up to one ounce of marijuana. The measure would also earmark tax proceeds for law enforcement stipends, cancer research at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, drug courts across Arkansas and general state revenues.
“Arkansas cannabis businesses have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to support organizations like Last Prisoner Project and 40 Tons that work every day in important areas like expungement, sentencing reform, rehabilitation and re-entry. Your vote in favor of Issue 4 helps fund this important work and ensures that your fellow Arkansans are no longer incarcerated over a plant,” noted AICA Vice President Dan Roda.
Rahman told Talk Business & Politics he is aware it will be tough to get meaningful legislation approved in a Legislature dominated by conservative Republicans. The session begins on Jan. 9.
“We have to approach this effort with a very open mind because … if Issue 4 passes, it will be very hard for people to ignore this very important issue,” Rahman said, adding that the ACIA has not yet drafted proposed legislation.
He said the ACIA has talked to legislators “from the left side of the aisle,” and they have a common response.
“Most have been very realistic with us and have said, ‘You have a tough hill to climb,’” Rahman said. “So we know the first shot may not be successful. It may take two or three times to get this.”
Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, the incoming Senate president pro tempore, may be part of the hill. He told Talk Business & Politics that legislation reducing or ending jail sentences is not likely to gain traction.
“I think the people of Arkansas are interested in keeping bad operators in jail. I think any group wanting to get anyone out of jail will have a very hard time in the next session,” Hester said.
He also pushed back against anyone suggesting there are people in Arkansas jails for only possessing small amounts of marijuana.
“There is nobody in jail for possessing small amounts of marijuana that is not also a violent offender,” he said.
There are 21 states with some level of expungement or ability to seal marijuana-related convictions from public view, according to NORML, a Washington, D.C.-based marijuana use advocacy group. Of those, eight states have an automatic expungement process for qualifying convictions.
On Oct. 6, President Joe Biden announced a plan to issue pardons for all prior federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana. The U.S. Sentencing Commission estimated such a pardon would result in pardons for 6,557 U.S. citizens. Biden also called on state governors to consider similar pardons in their states. Most Republican governors, including Gov. Asa Hutchinson, rejected Biden’s request.