By: Martin Austermuhle, WAMU, October 7, 2014

On July 17, the possession of small amounts of marijuana was decriminalized in D.C. After that day, being caught with anything less than an ounce of pot would get you a $25 fine. But if you were stopped by police before that, you faced far worse: arrest, possible jail time and a criminal record.

A bill passed by the D.C. Council today seeks to remedy that. Under the bill, residents arrested for offenses that have since been decriminalized or legalized — like marijuana possession — can petition to have their records sealed.

"If we're going to decriminalize or legalize marijuana under the guise of social justice, we have to allow people who are disproportionately impacted by the old laws to go back to living their old lives without consequence or stigma," says Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who sponsored the measure.

The bill is limited to residents arrested for non-violent marijuana offenses, and they cannot have a prior arrests or convictions. Grosso says that some 20,000 residents arrested for marijuana-related offenses over the last decade could benefit from the new law, and will not have to admit to having had a record when applying for a job or seeking housing.

As currently written, the bill will apply to residents arrested for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana, provided it happened before July 17. But if a marijuana legalization ballot initiative is approved by voters in November, it will extend to possession of less than two ounces and the growing of up to six plants, as well as possession of drug paraphernalia.

The D.C. Council has in the past approved record-sealing provisions, but this bill — the first of its kind in the nation, according to Grosso's office — eases the process of petitioning for a record to be sealed and expands the circumstances under which a record will be sealed, including residents who were arrested, charged or convicted. Prior record-sealing laws were limited to convictions.

"Our criminal justice system has too often focused on vengeance and punishment," says Grosso, who tied his bill to a measure passed earlier this year that limits when an employer can asked a job applicant about any past arrests or convictions.

The bill was approved unanimously on first reading, and still faces a second vote and congressional approval before becoming law.