Cannabis Crimes Go off The Record

San Francisco has made cannabis legalization retroactive. Will the rest of California follow suit?

On Wednesday, Jan. 31, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón announced that the city will automatically expunge the records of those convicted of misdemeanor marijuana charges from the past 40 years. That equates to more than 3,000 convictions that will now be dismissed and sealed, in addition to a review of nearly 5,000 felony cases that Gascón has pledged to ask prosecutors to review and potentially re-sentence.

The bold move by the San Francisco DA comes in the wake of the passage of Prop 64 last November. Within the bill that has brought adult use marijuana to California is a provision that allows for those previously convicted of cannabis-related misdemeanors to petition for their record to be expunged. Yet while many stand to greatly benefit from this opportunity, the knowledge and means to take advantage of it are not easy to come by.

On a surface level, it’s fair to assume some who qualify under the provision are wary of attorneys and the larger justice system that failed them. Beyond that however are the costs associated with retaining legal aid to complete the process. While some lawyers and members of the community have offered their time to help individuals file their requests, many more are left to try and navigate the daunting undertaking alone.

By automating the process, Gascón has set a precedent that should be adopted not only by the rest of California, but other states with legal adult use markets as well. The crux of the problem is remarkably simple: Who, given the opportunity, would not want their criminal record expunged? The answer, of course, is absolutely no one, which means there is no reason to place the burden of requesting record expungement on the individual.

Right now, the difference in petitioning for a clean record or receiving one automatically depends entirely on which city you were charged in. That’s one of the reasons that Care2 spokesperson and cannabis activist Julie Mastrine started a Care2 petition calling on California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Attorney General Xavier Becerra to do more with regards to assisting individuals with record expungement.

“Obviously, marijuana is a beneficial plant,” Mastrine explains, “so the fact that people have had their lives ruined or had their records tainted because of it is just really, really horrible to me.”

Mastrine launched the petition after reading a Washington Post article that quoted several lawyers who felt that California wasn’t doing enough to inform qualified candidates about the opportunity for a reduction in sentence or a clean record. As of Tuesday afternoon, the petition had 49,861 signatures of its 50,000 signature goal.

Asked for specifics on how the state might allocate additional resources to the cause, Mastrine says she leaves that part up to California officials.

“Seemingly their job is to fix the wrongs that have been done to the citizens of California through these prohibition laws,” she says.

While the prospect of targeted campaigns at public institutions likes post offices, libraries, and the DMV — especially in areas with disproportionately high rates of cannabis convictions — would undoubtedly help educate people with marijuana-related criminal records on how to get them expunged, they pale in comparison to the impact that would be made were other cities to follow Gascón’s example.

As has become a common refrain in the fallout from Prop 64, each city in California seems to have its own guidelines for handling the matter of record expungement. San Diego is taking the same tack as San Francisco by automating the process, while municipalities like Fresno and Santa Clara continue to evaluate requests on a case-by-case basis.

Outside of California, other states have struggled to define an efficient and lasting policy to ensure no one bears the criminal burden of an activity no longer deemed illegal. Although Colorado legalized cannabis three years before California, their efforts to expunge records only came in response to the precedent set by Prop 64. Nevada has not yet adopted an expungement policy, thanks in part to Gov. Brian Sandoval’s decision to veto legislation on the issue last June.

Thus California has once again been presented with an opportunity to take the lead on an issue of social reform. While cannabis is now legal to buy in the state, the intentions of Prop 64 and the laws that preceded it will never fully be realized as long as individuals carry criminal records for misdemeanors that were once highly questionable, and are now outright lunacy.

Sacramento must embrace the precedent Gascón set and absolve the onus to act from those who have already paid dearly for crimes the majority of the United States now believes aren’t crimes at all.

“The state created this mess,” says Mastrine. “Now it’s time to fix it.”

Zack Ruskin covers news, culture, and music  for SF Weekly. |  @zackruskin

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