The passage of Proposition 64 not only decriminalized the adult use of marijuana; the Adult Use of Marijuana Act created a path for people to have prior pot convictions reduced—or entirely cleared from their records.
The legislation specifies that people can initiate this process on their own, but in some counties—most notably San Francisco and San Diego—district attorneys have taken it upon themselves to review cases and reduce or dismiss convictions.
Those who oppose relief from prior convictions often say that since a crime was committed—marijuana was illegal then, after all—people need to face the consequences. But this same argument did not hold water for alcohol Prohibition—and should people continue to pay for a crime that was the result of misguided government policies?
This is a social-justice issue—one that all of us who care about our democracy should pay attention to. Why? People of color were much more likely to be arrested and convicted under the old laws. In fact, recent studies have shown that although whites and people of color use marijuana at about the same rate, black people are almost four times as likely, and Latinos two to three times as likely, to have faced arrest—even for possession of a small amount of marijuana. An old pot conviction can negatively impact a person’s ability to vote, get a job, rent an apartment and get student loans—and it can affect child-custody and immigration decisions. Therefore, it is particularly important for the government to ensure everyone is treated fairly under the law.
Prop 64 makes it clear that not everyone is eligible for conviction reductions or dismissals: The law specifies that this relief is reserved for those with relatively low-level offenses. A person with a history of violence, multiple convictions or convictions for selling to minors is not eligible to have his or her records expunged or reduced. In other words, hard-core drug dealers and people working for drug cartels are unlikely to somehow be set free.
Here’s hoping that other district attorneys around the state choose to follow the lead of San Diego and San Francisco counties and review old convictions—because it can be expensive and intimidating for people to initiate the process on their own. If someone can’t get a job or student loans because of a past marijuana conviction, it’s unlikely that person can afford a lawyer. The Drug Policy Alliance and other organizations are hosting free expungement clinics, where lawyers and paralegals are present to help, but they tend to happen in and around larger cities—with none planned here in the Coachella Valley that I could find. (If you know of any, please let us know.) That means someone from here would need to drive into Los Angeles on the chance they might get to speak to a lawyer about possibly having an old conviction reduced. Also: This is not the most well-known piece of the law, and the government is unlikely to publicize this information—so spread the word.
San Diego has already reduced the records of more than 700 people, and has identified more than 4,000 people who may be able to access this relief—yet Riverside County so far has reminded silent. Although a great number of people in the county have applied to have their records reduced or cleared, as of this writing, the office of District Attorney Mike Hestrin has made no public comment, nor did anyone from the office respond to my inquiries about plans to relive this burden. As a community that prides itself on progressive values, it’s incumbent upon us to put pressure on our local elected officials.
Legislative help may be on the way: Assemblyman Rob Bonta, a Democrat from Alameda, introduced Assembly Bill 1793 in January to “to allow automatic expungement or reduction of a prior cannabis conviction,” but the legislative process is a slow one. The bill went through its first reading in early January, and there has been no movement since. One possible reason for inaction: The Legislature would also need to provide financial resources to assist the counties in doing this work.
Real people continue to be harmed by old laws that the voters of the state of California have thrown out. Old felony convictions that today would be, at worst, misdemeanors—and possibly not even worthy of arrest—are keeping a disproportionate number of African Americans and Mexican Americans from fully participating in our democracy. After all, a right delayed is a right denied.