There’s a little-known provision in California’s new recreational marijuana laws that allow anyone with a prior marijuana charge to have that charge reduced, or eliminated completely. It does take a great deal of effort, though, and could cost mountains of legal fees while taking months or years to complete.
Except in San Francisco. The San Francisco District Attorney announced on Jan. 31 that all marijuana charges were being removed or reduced from offenders’ records, according to the Associated Press, with charge reductions and removals going all the way back to 1975.
“While 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,” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said in a release announcing the retroactive removal of marijuana charges.
“Long ago we lost our ability to distinguish the dangerous from the nuisance, and it has broken our pocketbooks, the fabric of our communities, and we are no safer for it,” he continued. “While this relief is already available pursuant to Proposition 64 for anyone with a conviction, it requires that they know it is available and to retain an attorney to file the expungement paperwork. 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.”
It's In Prop. 64
The impetus here is Prop. 64, the landmark 2016 recreational marijuana legalization measure that California voters passed in Nov. 2016. While that measure only appeared as a small paragraph on the ballot, the full text of the Prop. 64 Adult Use of Marijuana Act is 62 pages long. And it contains an obscure little bonus deep on Page 56.
“A person currently serving a sentence for a conviction, whether by trial or by open or negotiated plea, who would not have been guilty of an offense or who would have been guilty of a lesser offense under the Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act had that Act been in effect at the time of the offense may petition for a recall or dismissal of sentence before the trial court that entered the judgment of conviction in his or her case to request resentencing or dismissal,” the law says.
In other words, if you were charged with a marijuana offense that is now legal under Prop. 64, that charge would now be removed. Misdemeanors are now expunged (or “sealed”), while felonies are reduced to misdemeanors.
“This example, one of many across our state, underscores the true promise of Proposition 64 – providing new hope and opportunities to Californians, primarily people of color, whose lives were long ago derailed by a costly, broken and racially discriminatory system of marijuana criminalization,” said Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom added. “This isn’t just an urgent issue of social justice here in California – it’s a model for the rest of the nation.”
Outside of San Francisco
Admittedly, this only applies to residents of the City and County of San Francisco. But a website called ClearMyRecord.org allows residents of other California counties to initiate the process of having their charges reduced or removed. But be warned that you’ll have to fill out a very difficult and personal questionnaire, and you’ll need an attorney and plenty of time to work on the reduction. Outside San Francisco, the process is not automatic.
But it might become automatic statewide. The Los Angeles Times reports that California State Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) has introduced an assembly bill called AB 1793 that would automatically remove all Californians’ prior marijuana charges
“AB 1793 will give people the fresh start to which they are legally entitled and allow them to move on with their lives,” Bonta said in a release about his bill to remove all Californians’ marijuana convictions. “The War on Drugs unjustly and disproportionately targeted young people of color for enforcement and prosecution.”
“Long after paying their debt to society, the collateral consequences of having a criminal conviction continues to disrupt their lives in profound ways such as preventing them from gaining employment or finding housing,” Bonta said.
Bonta’s statewide bill still needs to grind through committee hearings, revisions, and state house votes. But D.A. Gascón’s San Francisco declaration takes effect immediately and amounts to a reduction or removal of all charges with no effort on the defendant’s part.
That said, any related charges involving guns, lying to police, or driving under the influence are not removed from records.