The District Attorney of San Francisco, George Gascon, said they want to “address the wrongs that were caused by the failures of the war on drugs for many years in this country and begin to fix the harm that was done not only to the entire nation but specifically to communities of color.” He announced on Feb. 1, that his office will start assessing about 8,000 marijuana-related cases dating back to 1975, and prosecutors will be dismissing and reducing convictions en masse. Gascon was also reported to have said that he hopes this action would “spark a trend” in California.
Before recreational marijuana became legal in California, pot-related felonies had grown into multiple thousands in the last two decades. The legalization of recreational marijuana which happened recently in California with the passing of Proposition 64 allows people with past pot-related criminal records to petition the court for a dismissal, or at least seek for the charges to be reduced.
According to Drug Policy Alliance, courts of San Francisco had already received 232 petitions, while the entire state of California has 4,885 cases filed, as of Sep. 2017. The process may require a petitioner to fill paperwork, pay a stipulated amount, and possibly retaining a legal representative. This seems to be a lot of process but a few people who went through with it have had their past records either reduced or dismissed.
Majority of the arrests and convictions made in the state (particularly of marijuana cases) are African-Americans and other minority groups. They have been victimized by a far higher rate than their White neighbors. But the state is trying to rectify that injustice. In Oakland, several marijuana sales permits is being set aside for minority communities and low-income areas that have been most affected by pot-related crime arrests.
The beginning of this millennium marked an increase in marijuana-related arrests of non white citizens. According to the Cannabis Equity Report , the percentage of black people arrested rose sharply from 34 to 41%. As at the time, the total population of Black Americans living in the city was just 8%. This represents quite a large number of the Black residents in the state.
Drug policy on the federal level is not progressive, and therefore California takes the lead, once again, in the processes of undoing the damages caused by a failed drug war—the social and political consequences of having a pot-related crime record. Many people (mostly Black) could not really find their bearings after a jail term. They can’t get decent jobs, educational scholarships, or even accommodation in many cases.
A few hours after the polls closed for the 2016 elections, the first petition was emailed to a California judge by Ingrid Archie. After 3 months, she got her marijuana conviction reduced to a misdemeanor. Archie is a black woman who was arrested by the police for being in possession of 1 pound of cannabis in her home. She was sentenced to 3 years in prison. “It was a huge relief,” Ms Archie said. She also held the view that other counties in the state should follow the lead which San Francisco and San Diego created.
“It’s huge that San Francisco is doing it automatically,” Ms. Martin said by email. “It removes huge barriers for folks trying to navigate the process of getting their life back from the bureaucracy.”
So far in San Diego, 680 cases have been either reduced or completely expunged. The office of Summer Stephan who is the current San Diego District Attorney, instantly reviewed all pending pot-related cases after the ballot measure passed. More than 50 convicts were released from prison. Hundreds of people also had their probation lifted.
This is an unprecedented move and its influencers are not seeing it as just an urgent situation where social justice should be done, but an example for the rest of the U.S.to follow. The Deputy Governor of California Gavin Newsom said in an interview, that the move is just one out of many that is made in fulfilling the promise of the new law. He hopes this will provide “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.”
San Francisco DA George Gascon does not only have the intention of dismissing marijuana convictions for those sentenced before recreational marijuana was legalized, but will also do it even if those convicted before reformed marijuana laws did not file a petition.
Although getting a conviction dismissed or reduced takes some time and financial resources, it appears to be a very good development. Cannabis is still a Schedule 1 drug that is prohibited under federal law, but the recent activities of California district and general attorneys is starting to catch attention on the federal level. Questions are already being asked if neighboring states like Nevada are going to follow suit.