San Francisco DA Will Expunge Thousands of Marijuana Convictions

By Paul Gaita 02/05/18

"We want to address the wrongs caused by the failures of the war on drugs...and begin to fix some of the harm that was done not only to the entire nation but specifically to communities of color."

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More than 3,000 misdemeanor convictions for marijuana-related charges will be expunged by the San Francisco District Attorney's office, which became a provision of Proposition 64, the California Marijuana Legalization Initiative, after passage in 2016. City District Attorney George Gascon made the announcement at a press conference on January 31, and added that his office will also review thousands of felony convictions for cannabis-related offenses, some of which may qualify for reduced sentences. For thousands of San Francisco residents, the decision will allow them to pursue housing, job and educational opportunities that were not previously available to them because of their convictions.

Proposition 64 allows individuals convicted on cannabis-related charges to file a petition to have those convictions overturned or sentences reduced. But as Gascon noted, the process can be time-consuming and expensive due to lawyer and court fees; only 5,000 people have petitioned to have their convictions overturned since the passage of Proposition 64. In an effort to help more individuals get back on their feet in a more timely manner, Gascon announced that his office will proactively expunge 3,038 misdemeanor convictions.

"You shouldn't have to come to court and miss a day of work to get your record expunged," he said in the press conference. "We will do all the work for them."

Additionally, Courthouse News Service reported that the district attorney's office will review nearly 5,000 felony convictions, many of which may be downgraded to misdemeanor charges with reduced sentences. Gascon noted that these efforts have the potential to positively impact the lives of California residents living with the restrictions that come with a conviction on their records.

"As progressive as San Francisco is, a misdemeanor or felony conviction for marijuana can have significant implications for your employment ability, housing, education and many other benefits," said Gascon.

Specifics on the time frame and cost of this widespread conviction review were not available at the time of the press conference, though Gascon noted that paralegals will handle the majority of the misdemeanors. He also said that felony convictions will require more hours and effort, since each case will require individual review in order to determine if a sentence reduction is applicable, such as in cases where cannabis convictions are related to other offenses.

Gascon did not shy away from calling out policy decisions by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which have granted federal prosecutors the ability to enforce marijuana laws in states like California that allow recreational or medicinal marijuana use.

"While the national government has taken a direction sort of going backwards when it comes to drug policy, here in San Francisco, again we have an opportunity to lead the way," said Gascon. "We want to address the wrongs caused by the failures of the war on drugs for many years in this country and begin to fix some of the harm that was done not only to the entire nation but specifically to communities of color."

That point was also picked up by the city's District 6 Supervisor, Malia Cohen, who said that the district attorney's decision is in line with a new equity program that will strive to help low-income residents, people of color and those with drug offense convictions find jobs within the San Francisco cannabis industry.

"The people most adversely affected by the war on drugs will get a little bit of a break from a system that's been targeting African American, Latino, and Pacific Islander communities since the 1980s," said Cohen.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.