SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office will wipe out thousands of marijuana convictions going back decades, opening up new job and housing opportunities to those arrested for cannabis-related offenses, the city’s top prosecutor announced Wednesday.
“We want to address the wrongs caused by the failures of the war on drugs for many years in this country,” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon said when announcing the new policy at a press conference Wednesday.
Proposition 64, the voter-backed ballot measure that legalized marijuana in 2016, allows those convicted of marijuana offenses to petition to have their convictions overturned or sentences reduced.
Instead of waiting for people to petition to get their records cleared, Gascon said his office would proactively expunge 3,038 misdemeanor convictions and review nearly 5,000 felony convictions, many of which may be downgraded to misdemeanors with reduced sentences.
“As progressive as San Francisco is, a misdemeanor or felony conviction for marijuana can have significant implications for your employment ability, housing, education and many other benefits,” Gascon said.
An estimated 2.8 million Californians were arrested for cannabis-related offenses over the last century, but less than 5,000 people have petitioned to have their convictions overturned since Proposition 64 took effect, Gascon said.
The process for getting marijuana convictions cleared can be time consuming, the district attorney said. It often requires individuals to file petitions, hire lawyers and go to court.
“You shouldn’t have to come to court and miss a day of work to get your record expunged,” Gascon said. “We will do all the work for them.”
When asked how long the effort will take or how much it will cost, Gascon could not offer a specific timeline or price tag. He said the work of expunging misdemeanor convictions would mostly be done by paralegals, but reviewing felony convictions will take more time and effort.
Some felony convictions could be related to other offenses, and each case must be reviewed individually to determine if a sentence reduction is appropriate, he said.
Rev. Amos Brown, president of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP, hailed the new policy as an important piece in the effort to undo the wrongs of an “unjust system” that has disproportionately arrested and jailed people of color on drug-related crimes.
“I feel this is a giant step toward justice, and it is a stride toward setting black people free to live in the community, to have jobs, to have healthcare and to have decent education,” Brown said, adding he hopes trade unions offer jobs to those who get their criminal records expunged through this new program.
San Francisco District 6 Supervisor Malia Cohen said this initiative will go “hand-in-hand’ with the city’s new equity program, intended to help low-income residents, people of color and those convicted of drug offenses find job and business opportunities in the city’s cannabis industry.
“Those people most adversely affected by the war on drugs will get a little bit of a break from a system that’s been targeting African American, Latino, and Pacific Islander communities since the 1980s,” Cohen said.
Nicole Elliot, director of the city’s Office of Cannabis, encouraged other top prosecutors across the state to follow Gascon’s lead.
“My hope is that this same effort will be replicated across the state by other district attorneys,” she said.
On Jan. 4, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed an Obama-era marijuana policy and authorized federal prosecutors to enforce cannabis laws in states like California that have legalized marijuana for recreational or medicinal use.
Gascon said while the federal government appears to have taken a step “backwards” on drug policy, San Francisco will continue working to reverse the harms caused by the 47-year-old war on drugs.
“While the national government has taken a direction sort of going backwards when it comes to drug policy, here in San Francisco again we have an opportunity to lead the way,” Gascon said. “We want to address the wrongs caused by the failures of the war on drugs for many years in this country and begin to fix some of the harm that was done not only to the entire nation but specifically to communities of color.”