Marijuana is now legal under California law, but hundreds of thousands of Californians have criminal records for possessing or selling the drug when it was still banned. Those records can make it harder for people to get a job, obtain a loan, go to college, rent an apartment or otherwise become productive members of their community — even if their marijuana arrest happened decades ago.
Proposition 64 not only allowed the sale and adult use of marijuana going forward, subject to state and local regulation, it applied the law retroactively and created a process for people to have certain pot convictions reduced or expunged entirely from their records. Yet few people — about 4,900 — have filed for expungements in the first year. Perhaps they don't know that this relief is available. Perhaps it's too expensive or intimidating; the process requires hiring a lawyer, filing a petition and going to court.
Some prosecutors in California aren't waiting for petitions. They are proactively reviewing marijuana cases handled by their offices and doing the work to reduce or erase the convictions. In San Diego County, the district attorney and public defender have already reduced the records of 700 people, and have identified 4,000 more marijuana convictions dating back to the early 2000s that may qualify for relief.
San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascón announced last week that his office will be reviewing and seeking resentencing of nearly 5,000 pot felonies and dismissing roughly 3,000 misdemeanor convictions dating back to 1975.
These are not hardened criminals or drug traffickers. Proposition 64 says someone with a conviction for simple possession can have that record erased. Felony convictions for possession or sales can be reduced to misdemeanors, as long as the person doesn't have a violent background, multiple convictions or a conviction for selling to minors.
Gascón said he decided to take action because only 23 petitions for Proposition 64 expungement or resentencing had been filed in San Francisco since the initiative passed. He also sees automatic case review as a way to help rectify the injustices and disparities in how marijuana laws had been enforced. Even after the state largely decriminalized marijuana possession, roughly half the people arrested for marijuana crimes in San Francisco were African Americans, even though they made up just 6% of the city's population.
San Francisco is by no means unique. For decades, the war on drugs was disproportionately fought in low-income and minority communities. Despite national surveys showing that whites and blacks use marijuana at approximately the same rates, blacks have over the years been nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. In California, studies conducted before Proposition 64's passage found Latinos were two to three times more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for marijuana crimes than non-Latino whites.
If California is serious about repairing the damage created by the war on drugs, then every district attorney in the state ought to follow San Francisco and San Diego's example. So should the city attorneys who handle misdemeanor prosecutions. Yes, it would be labor-intensive. Los Angeles County has about 40,000 felony convictions involving marijuana since 1993, and Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey said she wants to develop a system to prioritize marijuana conviction review for those who need it most, such as individuals applying for jobs.
If D.A.'s won't act — and frankly, they are best positioned to do so — the Legislature should consider having the courts systematically provide the relief that Proposition 64 makes available. Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda) has introduced legislation that signals his intent to do just that (Assembly Bill 1793). If lawmakers go that route, however, they would have to supply the underfunded court system with the budget necessary to conduct the reviews the proposition requires, such as determining which convictions were eligible for reduction or dismissal.
It's cruel to allow people to continue to suffer the penalties of a conviction for marijuana-related acts that the state no longer considers a crime. The war on marijuana was a mistake, and the sooner California alleviates the damage done, the better for all Californians.