The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office has announced that it will retroactively apply Proposition 64, which legalized the possession and recreational use of marijuana in California, to marijuana related misdemeanor and felony convictions dating back to 1975 with immediate effect. As a result, over 3,000 misdemeanor convictions will be dismissed and sealed, and nearly 5,000 felony convictions will be reviewed and potentially reduced.
On January 31, 2018, District Attorney George Gascón issued a statement announcing the initiative, stating that “[w]hile drug policy on the federal level is going backwards, San Francisco is once again taking the lead to undo the damage that this country’s disastrous, failed drug war has had on our nation and on communities of color in particular . . . . Long ago we lost our ability to distinguish the dangerous from the nuisance, and it has broken our pocket books, the fabric of our communities, and we are no safer for it.”
Currently, California residents have the right under Proposition 64 to petition to have their record expunged or conviction reduced. However, as Gascón recognizes, such relief requires people to not only know that it is available, but also to retain an attorney, which can be prohibitively expensive. Over the past year, for example, only 23 petitions were filed in San Francisco. The impact of such relief, however, can be life changing. “A criminal conviction can be a barrier to employment, housing and other benefits, so instead of waiting for the community to take action, we’re taking action for the community.”
The move by Gascón and San Francisco is not without some controversy. The initiative runs counter to recent Justice Department directives to increase enforcement efforts of federal drug law, which classifies marijuana in the same category as heroin. Nevertheless, San Francisco is joined by San Diego in its efforts to proactively review, reduce and expunge records for marijuana related convictions, while other states in addition to California have laws addressing expungement of some marijuana convictions. As more states legalize the possession and use of marijuana, it is likely that efforts similar to those being undertaken by the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office will also increase.