A year after California voted to legalize adult use cannabis, the plant has yet to hit the shelves, but efforts to reverse the impact of the War on Drugs in some of the communities most adversely impacted by its pot policies are well underway.
When voters passed the Adult Use of Marijuana Act in 2016, they weren’t just asserting their right to purchase marijuana and use it responsibly if over the age of 21, they also made the decision to help their peers who have suffered under the heel of heavy policing under Prop 47. And much of the time, that policing was disproportionately skewed along racial lines.
The LA Times earlier this month cited a city staff report that found African Americans accounted for less than 10 percent of the population in Los Angeles, but between 2000 and 2017 blacks represented 40 percent of marijuana-related arrests. Latinos made up 44 percent of arrests. Whites made up only 16 percent of arrests.
While there is plenty of work to be done in removing these kinds of disparities in policing across the board, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act chipped away at the iceberg. As the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office put it, “Prop 64 did not legalize all trafficking or use of marijuana. But it did legalize possession of small amounts at home, reduce some crime from felonies to misdemeanors and others from misdemeanors to infractions, plus it gives grounds to reduce or dismiss prior convictions.”
However, many people need help in order to get their prior convictions reduced or dismissed, and for those people, marijuana conviction expungement clinics have been popping up over the state. At these clinics, folks are given a free-of-charge road map to get the process of removing or reducing the impact of past marijuana crimes on their lives underway. Tens of thousands of Californians have marijuana convictions that could qualify for everything from reduced sentences to full on expungement of their criminal record, should this be the only mark on it. Plus, these expungement clinics have already assisted thousands of people in cleaning their records, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.
On Saturday, the Los Angeles County Public Defender will host one of the biggest clinics yet. While the event isn’t pot specific, big attendance numbers are expected from the community for just that reason. Along with felony reductions, numerous citizens with misdemeanors for fewer than seven plants, smoking in public or vehicle crimes like open containers will be able to apply for their past offense to become an infraction.
“California’s historic marijuana legalization initiative has helped thousands clear or reduce a marijuana conviction from their record,” said Eunisses Hernandez, a California policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance. “But we need to get the word out to the tens of thousands of other Californians who could benefit from this groundbreaking provision.”
For those who miss Saturday’s clinic, there will be more clinics held before the end of 2017 in Los Angeles County.
Dr. Amanda Reiman, who helped lead the legalization effort last year, called the clinics critical to supporting impacted communities.
“The War on Drugs has disproportionately impacted communities of color, but has also impacted communities and people without economic resources,” she told Cannabis Now.
Reiman says a lack of capital can prevent folks from being able to hire a lawyer, make bail, produce a bond or engage in the expungement process, “With new opportunities for expungement coming from Prop. 47 and 64 in California, it is imperative that those who have the option of removing felonies and other penalties from their record have the chance to do so.”
California Pot Attorney Lauren Mendelsohn has helped a few folks clean the weed off their records since last November and herself took part in some Northern California expungement clinics to help folks out this year.
“It’s a very short form to fill out,” she told Cannabis Now. “You can decide whether or not if you want the same judge, or if you want to waive the right to a hearing. It’s a pretty simple form and so far I’ve had success with it. In different counties throughout California, they’re acknowledging it and granting these motions.”
Mendelsohn said it is worth remembering that Prop 64 didn’t cover every single scenario and there are definitely certain kinds of pot convictions — especially environmental ones written by a game warden — that were not impacted by the passage last November.
We gave Mendelsohn the scenario of a mid-40s person with a possession conviction from the ’90s on their record and asked what it would cost to clean everything up — should that person not make it to the clinics.
“It wouldn’t cost that much, I would imagine, since you can do it on your own. Often times it’s challenging for a lot of people who aren’t familiar with the judicial system in terms of how to file different things and where. But that aside, these are things people can do on their own if their comfortable enough doing it,” said Mendelsohn.
The Executive Director of NORML, Erik Altieri, said that now that California has legal cannabis, it only makes sense to get rid of old criminal records. “Once a state legalizes the possession and cultivation of marijuana, there is no logical reason that those saddled with criminal records for what is now state legal conduct should continue to suffer under the weight of their past conviction,” said Altieri.
Altieri believes expungement clinics can be a valuable resource for some prohibition victims, “but too many are still left out of the process due to financial and other practical factors.” According to Altieri, NORML believes the onus should be on the state, not the victims, to create and execute a process of retroactive expungement once new legalization laws are in place. “We must ensure that no citizen will continue to bear the burden of a past marijuana charge. We strongly encourage that state legislatures support the establishment of such procedures,” he said.
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