With recreational marijuana now legal in California, the state has begun making efforts to clear the records of people with marijuana convictions that predate legalization. In January, the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office announced it will expunge cannabis-related misdemeanors and felonies from as far back as 1975, essentially retroactively applying marijuana legalization laws to these cases. As the Los Angeles Times reported in January of 2018, “San Francisco’s move could be the beginning of a larger movement to address old pot convictions, though it’s still far from clear how many other counties will follow the famously liberal city’s lead.”
Many people say this move has been a long time coming. Having a cannabis conviction, even a minor one, drastically impacts a person’s life. “The War on Drugs and cannabis prohibition specifically were state-sponsored campaigns of human right violations,” says cannabis justice activist Adam Vine, co-founder of Los Angeles-based Cage Free Cannabis. “The consequences of prohibition remain on people’s records and restrict their access to vital human services like jobs, housing, education, and the right to vote… In California, cannabis was prohibited for about 100 years. In that time hundreds of thousands of people were arrested for cannabis offenses, if not millions. If your cannabis offense was your first offense, you lost all of this access to a future.”
Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana in California in 2016, includes language allowing for people with prior marijuana convictions to petition the court system to have their records cleared, or to have felonies reclassified as misdemeanors. While surely well-intentioned, the process to clear records unsurprisingly turned out to be too complicated and difficult for most people to bother with. Furthermore, activists point out it’s fundamentally unjust to ask people with convictions for something that is no longer illegal to take it upon themselves to get their records cleared. The state of California has made strides to rectify this problem.
One thing California has done is work with technology company Code for America to implement an automated system to automatically clear records. This is important because it takes the burden of dealing with the paperwork and bullshit—which is significant—off of the backs of individuals and onto the government. Because the War on Drugs was “state sponsored,” says Vine, “It’s only natural that the relief should be state sponsored as well.”
On October 1, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill proposed by Alameda-based State Assemblymember Rob Bonita, which requires county courts to automatically remove or reduce marijuana convictions from Californians’ records. According to the Department of Justice, nearly 220,000 cases are eligible for erasure or reduction.
Georgia Perry is a freelance writer currently based in Denver, Colorado. She has been published in The Atlantic, CityLab, and Vice. Follow her on Twitter @georguhperry.