Senator Lew Frederick didn’t ask for his cannabis-related bill in the Oregon State Legislature to be named Senate Bill 420. No, really, he didn’t.
“I wish I could say I was that prescient, but it was totally a coincidence,” Frederick told the Mercury about the number for his bill, which aims to help people convicted under outdated state marijuana laws. “It’s perhaps a nice omen.”
Humorous as SB 420's number might be, the content of the bill is meant to address a serious problem for people who were caught with weed before before 2014.
When Oregon voters legalized pot over four years ago, it became legal to possess up to eight ounces of flower. But Measure 91 didn’t do anything to reverse convictions imposed on people who possessed small amounts of weed before state laws changed, meaning many Oregonians still have a mark on their records for possession of a controlled substance—a substance that isn’t just legal now, but fueling an entire new industry that’s given the state millions in tax revenue.
“We have a number of people who have convictions now of possession of a controlled substance—possession of marijuana—where if they were now carrying the same amount or selling the same amount, or it was in their home, it would not be even considered as a crime,” Frederick said. “And they are then struggling with housing and education and jobs, et cetera, because of that.”
In 2015, the Oregon Legislature passed SB364, which allows people who have convictions for old marijuana-related offenses to go through the process of having them expunged, or erased, from their records. That bill was also sponsored by Frederick, who represents North and Northeast Portland—but he’s learned that the expungement process “is both long and costly.”
SB 420 (not to be confused with Rep. Earl Blumenauer’s HR 420 in US Congress) takes things a step further: It directs the Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ) to find those outdated misdemeanor convictions, and ask prosecutors to have those convictions set aside.
Given that the state legislature passed Frederick’s 2015 bill, and that other communities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Colorado have enacted similar legislative, there’s a good chance SB 420 will pass in the 2019 session.
But there is one complicating factor that Frederick was recently made aware of: In Oregon, a conviction for possession of a controlled substance doesn’t necessarily specify which drug the person possessed. Often, Frederick said, you’d have to look at the police report to find out whether the person was carrying pot or another drug. That means the DOJ would have to sift through each case that might potentially qualify for expungement.
“How we deal with that particular issue is going to be a struggle, but I’m hoping we can find a way around that,” he said. “It’s going to cost some money to do that research. So we’ve got to figure out how we’ll do that, and where we’ll get that money.”
Frederick said he expects SB 420 to be placed on the senate judiciary committee’s docket sometime in the next week. Jokes aside about the bill’s serendipitous number (the person responsible for numbering bills at the senate clerk’s office asked Frederick “What does that mean? Does it mean something?” when he quizzed her about it), he said it’s an important step toward mitigating the lingering effects of the War on Drugs, which disproportionately impacted people of color.
“An awful lot of minority folks who were picked up for that kind of thing, have that to deal with, in addition to the treatment of minorities by the legal system in one form or another,” he said. “Those two things combined—I’m trying to break that pattern.”