Relief May Be On The Way For Californians With Pot Convictions

By Kelly Burch 12/20/17

Under a new California law, people convicted of pot crimes of all severity can appear before a judge to have their cases reconsidered.

Judge holding gavel

Up to one million people in California who have been convicted of marijuana-related crimes are eligible to have charges overturned or lessened as part of the state’s marijuana legalization law, which fully takes effect on January 1. 

“We worked to help create a legalized and regulated process for legal marijuana, but we also wanted to make sure we could help—some way, somehow—repair the damages of marijuana prohibition,” Eunisses Hernandez, a policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance, told The Washington Post.

Under California law, people convicted of marijuana crimes of all severity can appear before a judge to have their cases reconsidered. There have been 500,000 marijuana-related arrests in California over the past 10 years, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, and there are about a million people who could be affected by the new law. 

However, many people don’t know that their cases might be eligible for review; so far, only 4,500 people have applied to have their convictions reconsidered. 

The San Diego district attorney’s office has been notifying people who were convicted in the last three years and are able to have their cases reviewed. Nearly 600 sentence reductions have been processed in that county. 

“We absolutely didn’t want people to be in custody who shouldn’t be in custody,” Rachel Solov, chief of the collaborative courts division in the San Diego district attorney’s office, told The Washington Post

Elsewhere in the state, officials have put too little effort into publicizing the program, critics say. 

“One of the projects we’re working on this year is to notify people that this is an option,” said Bruce Margolin, a Los Angeles defense lawyer who specializes in marijuana cases. “It’s a viable thing to do, obviously, because people are suffering with these felony convictions in so many aspects of their life.”

Critics also say that people who have fewer socioeconomic advantages—often those who are more likely to have a marijuana conviction—are also less likely to know about the new regulations or be able to file a petition. 

“That’s one of the criticisms, that a lot of people don’t have the time or energy or the access to public transportation to get to the courthouse,” said Omar Figueroa, a defense lawyer specializing in marijuana law in Sebastopol, California.

“What I see is the people who have more means are the ones who are taking advantage of this, and the people who have more basic struggles in their everyday life, the last thing they’re thinking about is cleaning up their criminal history for their old marijuana convictions.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.