By Alexei Koseff
When California voters legalized recreational weed in 2016, they made the law retroactive, allowing residents to petition to overturn or reduce old convictions for possession, cultivation and distribution of marijuana.
But it is a difficult and expensive legal procedure, advocates say, and many people are not even aware they are now eligible to clean up their records. State courts received 4,885 petitions in the first 11 months after Proposition 64 passed, while the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance found more than 460,000 arrests for marijuana offenses between 2006 and 2015 alone.
Assemblyman Rob Bonta is hoping to simplify the process. The Alameda Democrat’s Assembly Bill 1793 would require courts to automatically expunge the records of Californians convicted of offenses that are now legal under Proposition 64, such as possessing up to an ounce of weed and growing up to six plants for personal use, and to resentence those individuals whose crimes, such as selling marijuana, were reduced from felonies to misdemeanors.
“We’re just saying, ‘Move it along. Get it done,’ ” he said.
The legacy of racially unequal enforcement also motivated the measure. California police arrested black people for marijuana offenses at more than twice the rate of Latinos in 2015, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, and more than triple the rate of white people.
Bonta said his bill could provide a fresh start, including better employment and housing opportunities, to those who may not have the resources to petition in court: “It tries to create some justice where there was such injustice in the failed War on Drugs.”
AB 1793 faces high hurdles; it requires a two-thirds vote, and could face heavy opposition from the same law enforcement groups that campaigned against Proposition 64. Associations representing police chiefs and district attorneys said they have not yet taken a position on the bill.
As it moves it way through the Legislature this session, however, momentum may be building in local communities. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón announced this week that his office plans to wipe more than 3,000 misdemeanor marijuana convictions dating back to 1975, and will review nearly 5,000 more felony cases for possible resentencing.