Proposition 64, which voters passed in November 2016, not only legalized the adult use of cannabis, but also established protocols for reducing, dismissing and sealing old marijuana-related convictions. That means Californians convicted of cannabis crimes can wipe them away—if they file a petition.
San Francisco’s District Attorney George Gascón electrified political observers in late January by announcing he would apply Proposition 64 retroactively to misdemeanor and felony convictions dating back to 1975—without those who meet the requirements to get their cases dismissed needing to take any actions. “Instead of waiting for the community to take action, we’re taking action for the community,” stated Gascón in January in a press release.
In Alameda County, which includes the city of Oakland, District Attorney Nancy O’Malley does not plan to dismiss convictions en masse without the affected people filing petitions. However, the DA can send a request to the court and file a petition on the persons behalf, asking the court to dismiss eligible convictions.
According to the text of Proposition 64, under the new law, felony convictions can be downgraded to misdemeanors or infractions, and misdemeanor cases will be dismissed. Amongst others, the policy will affect people who were convicted for possessing 25.8 grams or less of marijuana, or 8 grams or less of concentrated cannabis, when they were age 21 or older. It will also affect people with convictions of selling marijuana or cannabis if they don’t have more than two prior convictions for the same reason.
“California is offering a second chance to people convicted of marijuana crimes, from felonies to small infractions, with the opportunity to have their criminal records cleared,” said O’Malley on Tuesday in a press statement. “We join our state officials and intend to reverse decades of cannabis convictions that can be a barrier for people to gain meaningful employment.”
Her office has identified about 5,900 cases, some with multiple marijuana convictions, since the early 1970’s that meet the requirements for dismissal. The DA’s office will notify the people in question by mail about their option to file a petition.
Since November, 2016, 609 such petitions have been granted in Alameda County. As of September, 2017, only 232 petitions were filed in San Francisco.
Across California, 4,885 petitions were reported by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) from November, 2016, to September, 2017. But because many counties do not report their findings during each reporting period, the total number is likely much higher.
The Drug Policy Alliance, a non-profit organization that aims to decriminalize responsible drug use, supports the opportunity for convicted people to have their records wiped. Removing convictions “benefits those people to make a living on their own,” says Rodney Holcombe, a staff attorney for the organization. Having a record of convictions, even if they are from long time ago, can cause “collateral consequences in social life” according to Holcombe. Those consequences include difficulties getting a job, finding housing or getting a driver’s license.
He also welcomes Gascón’s decision to dismiss convictions en masse. “This is very helpful for all those people who are not able to file a petition themselves,” Holcombe said.
Zachary Norris, executive director of Oakland’s Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a group that works with formerly incarcerated people, said that dismissals will “help to reduce harm caused by unfair drug laws that have worsened cycles of poverty and incarceration, especially in low-income communities of color.” The opportunity to file petitions will give people an opportunity to move on with their lives, he said: “This is only fair as the state of California, at the behest of its voters, agreed that it should move on, too.”
Contra Costa County, which includes the city of Richmond, doesn’t yet have a strategy to handle petitions for dismissal. District Attorney Diana Becton said her office “is working on creating a mechanism to help streamline the petition process.”
Meanwhile, on February 13, the Berkeley City Council voted to become a “sanctuary city” for marijuana—likely the first of its kind. This decision, a message of support to the cannabis industry and users, will prohibit city agencies and employees from turning over information on legal cannabis activities or assisting the enforcement of federal marijuana laws, which still bar its use, cultivation and sale. However, the decision won’t prevent federal enforcement operations from occurring within city limits.