By James Brooks, Alaska Beacon
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JUNEAU — On May 1, the Alaska Court System will remove the marijuana possession convictions of about 750 Alaskans from Courtview, the state’s online database of court cases.
The Alaska Supreme Court announced the move in an order signed Jan. 31 by the court’s five justices. The action, first publicized Sunday by the Alaska Landmine, follows years of similar, unsuccessful, legislative efforts to join a nationwide trend.
“I’m glad that the Supreme Court has ordered this,” said Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks.
The records will still be available for inspection at courthouses and will be discoverable by a formal criminal background check, but they won’t be as easy to find for the general public.
The removal covers only people who were 21 or older when they committed the offense of possessing an ounce or less of marijuana. The conviction can’t be associated with another crime.
Nancy Meade, general counsel for the Alaska Court System, declined an interview request on behalf of the Supreme Court justices who approved the new order.
Meade said the change originated with administrative staff and was considered by the justices under normal procedures.
“Given that (marijuana) has been legal for eight years, it appeared to the Supreme Court that this was an appropriate time not to have people, as I say, suffer the negative consequences that can stem from having your name posted on Courtview. Because the conduct is considered legal right now,” she said.
As states legalize recreational marijuana cultivation and use, they’re also considering whether to expunge, seal or otherwise obscure the criminal records of people who were convicted of marijuana-related crimes before legalization. A criminal record could prevent someone from getting a job or housing, and obscuring marijuana records may prevent that problem for people convicted of nonviolent marijuana crimes.
“A lot of folks in my district, they have these barriers that are put in place, and a simple rule change, policy change, legislation, could change it for their entire lives,” said Rep. Stanley Wright, R-Anchorage.
In 2019 alone, Illinois, New Hampshire, Nevada and Washington state passed legislation obscuring marijuana-related convictions; altogether, 41 states have some form of legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Alaska isn’t one of those states, despite a bipartisan push last year. In 2022, the state House voted 30-8 to approve a bill to conceal marijuana convictions from Courtview and criminal background searches, but the measure failed to pass the Senate before the legislative session ended. A similar bill was also proposed by Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla.
Wright reintroduced the bill this year and already has five Democratic and independent cosponsors.
He said on Tuesday that he’s still considering whether the bill is needed; a law may be necessary, he said, in order to prevent a future court from reversing the rule change.
Sen. Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage, said her office is also considering a bill of its own.
In addition to providing more surety, a bill could reach further than a simple court rule change.
The court system is in charge of Courtview, which allows it to exclude marijuana convictions without a state law. Under Administrative Rule 40, it already excludes more than a dozen categories of items, such as some stalking and domestic violence protective order requests.
It can’t change the rules for criminal background checks, which Wright’s bill would also cover. That bill has yet to receive a hearing, but it’s identical to the one that failed to pass last year, and officials at the Department of Public Safety said as many as 8,500 cases would need to be examined to determine whether they are covered by the bill.
Originally published by the Alaska Beacon, an independent, nonpartisan news organization that covers Alaska state government.