ThinkProgress

San Francisco makes weed legalization retroactive, wiping out criminal records for thousands

Homeless man panhandling, San Francisco, California. CREDIT: Nigel Killeen/Getty Images

Thousands of Californians will have their misdemeanor pot convictions expunged automatically and thousands more may have felony cases re-categorized, after San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón announced plans to make the state’s pot legalization law apply retroactively on Wednesday.

Gascón’s jurisdiction limits his reach here. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of other Californians unlucky enough to be arrested for weed elsewhere in the state will have to hope officials nearer to them follow his lead — or find the money to pay a lawyer to petition the courts for an expungement.

The San Francisco review will stretch back more than 40 years. More than 3,000 people convicted of a misdemeanor for marijuana possession will have their records erased, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Even a misdemeanor criminal record casts a long shadow in job interviews, the search for an apartment, and efforts to draw public benefits like unemployment insurance or food stamps. Gascón’s decision to automate the expungement process will make it far easier for the predominantly black victims of the federal War on Drugs to benefit directly from the passage of Proposition 64, a ballot initiative that legalized marijuana in the state from the start of 2018.

One state lawmaker is looking to automate the expungement process statewide through legislation, though the bill is vague and has not yet received a committee hearing date according to the state assembly website. Roughly 5,000 Californians have filed a court petition to have their pot records cleared since Prop 64 took effect, according to figures from the non-profit Drug Policy Alliance.

Sponging the drug-war residue off of people’s lives today will make it easier for them to live well tomorrow. But it’s easy to get caught up in that happy news and lose sight of the sheer scale of the disruption these cases caused for Californians year in and year out for decades. Even after partial decriminalization statewide in 1976, police made at between 20,000 and 60,000 arrests for minor pot infractions every single year up until 2011, when possessing less than an ounce became a ticketable offense with no associated misdemeanor charge.

Now that marijuana is fully legal in the state, leaders have a chance to go back and make that right. But it will be an enormous undertaking — not only because records systems are resource-intensive to manage, review, and revise, but also due to the sheer size of the backlog of criminal history in question.

Suppose those 5,000 petitions were all granted tomorrow and Gascón’s 3,000-ish automatic misdemeanor expungements could be done all at once with the push of a button. That would just scratch the surface of the backlog of past misdemeanors — if it even managed to leave a visible mark at all.

California law enforcement made 1,457,605 misdemeanor cannabis arrests from 1976 through 2016, California NORML’s Dale Gieringer told ThinkProgress. That doesn’t mean a full 1.5 million individuals still have outdated misdemeanors lingering in a database somewhere, waiting for a potential employer or landlord or happen upon in a background check. Some of those arrests probably never led to a conviction, and some individuals may account for more than one arrest in Gieringer’s dataset.

But theoretically, those misdemeanor cannabis busts are supposed to disappear automatically after two years.

“Our attorneys say that isn’t happening,” Gieringer said. “You pretty much have to file to get it erased.”