A bill that would allow people to get a marijuana conviction expunged has moved through two committees in the Florida state Senate this session, but its ultimate passage is far from secure.

What You Need To Know

  • The measure is sponsored by Orange County area Democratic State Sen. Randolph Bracy

  • St. Pete attorney says that convictions for cannabis can haunt people when it comes to looking for jobs, housing

  • Bill has more steps to achieve before passage

The measure (SB 468) - sponsored by Orange County area Democratic State Sen. Randolph Bracy - would allow a person arrested for possession of 20 grams or less of cannabis to begin the process of removing that arrest from their record.

There are certain pre-conditions for someone to be eligible, however:

-      The person may receive only one expungement for one marijuana misdemeanor conviction.

-      At least one year has elapsed since the disposition of the offense or alleged criminal activity.

-      The person pays a $75 processing fee to the Florida Dept. of Law Enforcement.

Chris Cano, the executive director of the Suncoast Chapter for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), calls it “a good first step” in reforming the state’s marijuana laws, but believes it’s far too modest.

“The thing about this bill is that it’s an expungement bill. Meaning that the damage has already been done in a lot of people’s lives,” Cano says. “Some folks have served jail time for it. Some folks have been denied employment. Some folks have had their lives set back because of a cannabis possession charge.”

St. Petersburg based-attorney Rohom Khonsari says that convictions for cannabis can haunt people when it comes to looking for jobs or housing.

“I’ve had many clients that have been denied housing,” he says. “Whether it’s an apartment complex or whether they were renting a condo and had to have a screening process through the HOA (homeowner’s association) that denied them the ability to have housing.”

Ellen Snelling is the chair of the Hillsborough County Anti-Drug Alliance. She likes the fact that the bill has been narrowed down to allow an individual to be able to expunge only one previous marijuana conviction.

“I can’t say that I’m 100 percent for it, but in general I do support criminal justice reform around possession of drugs,” she says.

There are now more than a dozen cities or counties in Florida who have decriminalized cannabis possession in recent years. In Tampa, an ordinance stating that people caught with 20 grams or less of marijuana would only face a citation went into effect on April 1, 2016. A records request finds that the Tampa Police Department has issued out 3,658 civil citations from April of that year to March 30 of this year.

And in Pinellas County, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced in October of 2016 the creation of the county’s Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion (APAD) program with full participation from all municipalities in the county. Among the misdemeanor offenses eligible under the program were people arrested for possession of 20 grams of cannabis or less (if it was intended “solely for personal use and it does not appear ready for sale”).

NORML’s Chris Cano says that more local governments would decriminalize misdemeanor marijuana arrests, but says that they fear getting preempted by Tallahassee.

“Many are afraid to buck the system and they’re afraid to tell the Legislature, ‘no, this is something that’s important to us and our community and we’re going to address this here locally,’ because they’ve been stamped down so many times in the past by taking that approach,” he says.

While Bracy’s bill has sailed relatively smoothly through two committees in the Senate to date, its House companion (HB 189) sponsored by Orange County Democrat Travaris McCurdy, has yet to be heard in committee.

And Florida Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls told the Tampa Bay Times last week that while he has supported the expungement of certain arrests, he doesn’t support doing so when it comes to specific offenses. 

“You don’t expunge for a category of crimes (marijuana), you make policy choices based on where the person was in the criminal justice system (trial, conviction, first time offense, juvenile etc.),” Sprowls said. “I would not consider an expungement of a particular offense disconnected from other policy considerations.”

There have been several bills addressing criminal justice reform in the Florida Senate in recent years that have stalled in the more conservative leaning House.

Other states are being much more aggressive on the issue.

At the end of last year, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker announced that he had pardoned or wiped off the records about a half million cannabis convictions as part of a state law that legalized marijuana sales.

Meanwhile, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was poised to sign into law later on Monday a bill legalizing cannabis for recreational use, making it the 17th state in the nation to do so.