Few things are perfect, and that includes the manner in which legalized adult-use cannabis programs have been regulated. While it’s easy and fun to list all the ways regulatory agencies have, and continue, to screw things up, the good parts include increased access to clean, tested cannabis products, abundant tax revenue, and expungement programs for those arrested/convicted for a cannabis offense.
The price paid for a cannabis arrest goes far beyond fines and jail time—a cannabis related criminal record reduces and eliminates opportunities for housing, education, and employment. And who is disproportionately impacted by cannabis crime enforcement? No, not "Miley Cyrus"... that’s a really terrible guess. The answer is “people and communities of color,” Dab Rig Donnie.
I’ve written about expungement programs before, including a piece one year ago which touted San Francisco expunging over 9,000 cannabis related charges. From February 27, 2019:
A part of Proposition 64, California's adult-use cannabis legalization ballot initiative, requires cities to implement a "record change process" which “requires automation of this process across the state” for charge reductions or expungements. On Monday San Francisco became the state's first county to announce they had achieved that benchmark.
San Francisco's District Attorney announced that through a partnership with a Silicon Valley non-profit, Code for America, which began in May of 2018, they have been able to identify and begin action to reduce or expunge cannabis charges for more than 9,300 individuals. That's just in San Francisco. In Los Angeles, it's estimated that since 1993, there are more than 40,000 felony convictions for cannabis that are now eligible for dismissal. Code for America has begun working with other cities and counties to find eligible cases.
Last week, news came that Los Angeles is about to snatch the crown of California cannabis expungements, announcing action to wipe out over 66,000 cannabis charges. The LA Times captured the numbers and nuances of this.
Let’s start with the numbers. When George Gascón, San Francisco’s district attorney, took action on those 9,300 cases last year, 33 percent of those charged were Black and 27 percent were Latino. In Los Angeles, those numbers skewed similar, as the LA Times wrote:
(L.A. District Attorney) Lacey this week filed a motion asking a judge to erase 62,000 felony convictions dating to 1961 and 4,000 misdemeanor convictions in 10 cities across the county. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta signed the order Tuesday. That means 22,000 people no longer have felonies on their records in California, and 15,000 no longer have a criminal record at all. Of the 53,000 people who received relief, 32 percent are Black, 45 percent are Latino and 20 percent are white.
For anyone believing those numbers mean only 20 percent of whites smoke cannabis, well... no. Remember the "disproportionate enforcement" thing? As the Times notes, a 2016 study “found that although African Americans make up just 6 perfect of California’s population, they account for almost a quarter of those serving jail time exclusively for marijuana offenses.” Happy Black History Month.
The action hasn’t been without controversy.
First, over 2,100 cannabis convictions are being challenged by the DA’s office as “ineligible for relief” due to the criminal history of the person, who may petition to be resentenced.
Some are asking why it took LA a full year after San Francisco expunged their cases with the kick off for Code for America’s program, which can scan 10,000 case files in well under one minute. DA Lacey is running for a third term, leading to accusations that this announcement, made three weeks before the primary election, is suspiciously timed, long overdue, and aimed towards making her appear more progressive than her past policies would indicate. Yet some of those accusations are coming from supporters of one of her challengers, George Gascón, the aforementioned San Francisco DA.
CBS News reported that at a press conference Lacey proclaimed, "I've instructed my deputy district attorneys to ask the court to dismiss all eligible cannabis-related convictions. I also took the will of the voters one step further. I expanded the criteria to go above and beyond the parameters of the law to ensure that many more people will benefit.”
That “expanded criteria” was great news for those with felony convictions for cannabis cultivation, selling, or transportation, who saw those convictions dismissed, provided they are 50 years of age or older, anyone who has not been convicted of a crime in the last 10 years, anyone with a conviction who successfully completed probation, and anyone with a conviction under the age of 21.