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DA's office praised for pot action

by Sari Staver

District Attorney George Gascón. Photo: Rick Gerharter
District Attorney George Gascón. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

Cannabis activists are cheering the January 31 announcement that the San Francisco District Attorney's office will remove or reduce previous criminal convictions from all records in San Francisco Superior Court, dating back to 1975.

The announcement, made by District Attorney George Gascón at a news conference, is a retroactive application of Proposition 64, the 2016 voter initiative legalizing the possession and use of cannabis by adults over age 21.

Prop 64 also allows people with convictions to petition courts to dismiss their cases, but many were unaware that they qualified for resentencing or were unable to afford to bring such a petition, said Gascón. The new program doesn't require any action be taken by those who are eligible.

Since 1975, nearly 8,000 people have been convicted of marijuana-related crimes in San Francisco. Now that pot is legal in California, those convictions no longer make sense, the district attorney's office said.

"While drug policy on the federal level is going backwards, San Francisco is once again taking the lead to undo the damage that this country's disastrous, failed drug war has had on our nation and on communities of color in particular," Gascón said in a news release. "Long ago we lost our ability to distinguish the dangerous from the nuisance, and it has broken our pocket books, the fabric of our communities, and we are no safer for it."

According to Gascón, 3,038 misdemeanor pot convictions would be dismissed and sealed, while 4,940 felonies will be reviewed by the DA's office, possibly resulting in recalling or resentencing in those cases.

Gay District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, speaking at the news conference announcing the new program, congratulated Gascón on the announcement and also thanked District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen for introducing legislation creating an "equity program" to give opportunities to people who have been harmed by the punitive laws. A similar equity program was approved in Oakland, creating opportunities for people to work in the cannabis industry.

Cohen's proposal is aimed at helping people whose lives were harmed because of the "unjust laws" that should never have been on the books to begin with, said Sheehy.

Sheehy also noted the "irony" in the recent death of cannabis pioneer Dennis Peron.

"I wonder how many convictions he had" compiled, said Sheehy.

Rafael Mandelman, a gay man who is running against Sheehy in the June primary, said in an email to the Bay Area Reporter, "I strongly support the district attorney's actions on cannabis related convictions going back to 1975. The drug war has wrought so much devastation in so many communities. This doesn't make up for all the harm of decades of failed policies, but it's a solid start."

In a written statement, Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said, "The stigma associated with a marijuana arrest and criminal conviction is lifelong, and can directly lead to numerous lost opportunities later in life. The San Francisco District Attorney's office is to be commended for proactively rectifying this situation - one that has disproportionately burdened far too many young people and people of color."

A statewide effort to require state courts to automatically expunge past marijuana convictions is underway with Assemblyman Rob Bonta's (D-Oakland) Assembly Bill 1793. Bonta, praising Gascón's move, said in a statement, "This is the right thing to do. I encourage other district attorneys throughout the state to follow San Francisco's lead."

In a prepared statement, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, a longtime cannabis advocate and candidate for governor, said, "This example, one of many across our state, underscores the true promise of Proposition 64 - providing new hope and opportunities to Californians, primarily people of color, whose lives were long ago derailed by a costly, broken, and racially discriminatory system of marijuana criminalization. This isn't just an urgent issue of social justice here in California - it's a model for the rest of the nation."

The DA's office estimated that between 1915 and 2016, California law enforcement made 2,756,778 cannabis arrests.

While Prop 64 allows for those convicted of marijuana crimes to petition to have their convictions reduced or wiped away, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, only 4,885 Californians have petitioned state courts to have their cannabis convictions expunged since the initiative's passage. With the Department of Elections reporting that nearly 75 percent of San Franciscans voted to legalize marijuana, nearly three out of every four San Franciscans voted to provide this relief to those convicted of marijuana offenses, according to Gascón's office.

"As indicated by the disparities in San Francisco arrest and booking rates, the War on Drugs has produced disparate arrest rates across racial groups," the DA's office stated in the news release. "This is despite the fact that multiple studies have found that rates of drug use and drug sales are commensurate across racial lines. In particular, African-American and Latino communities interact with the criminal justice system, including via arrests, bookings, and incarceration, at a rate far higher than their Caucasian counterparts."

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