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California Legalization of Marijuana Allows Convicted to Petition

by Derek Gilna

Proposition 64, which legalizes the sale of recreational marijuana in the state of California, also has a less publicized benefit for those with state marijuana felonies on their record. It allows them to petition to have their convictions reduced or dismissed.

This has the potential to be an extremely positive development for previous offenders who encounter roadblocks to obtaining meaningful post-conviction employment.

It comes as a welcome development for Yirtuamlak Fentaw, who is eligible to have his convictions modified under Proposition 64. As he tells it, “All I can get is warehouse work … minimum wage jobs. There’s only so much $375 a week can do.”

The number of people who could potentially benefit is huge. Eunisses Hernandez, policy coordinator with the Los Angeles office of the Drug Policy Alliance (“DPA”) said, “We know within the last ten years there have been at least 500,000 marijuana arrests in the state of California, even when we had legal medical marijuana. Going back ten more years, we’re sure the numbers are even double that.”

However, some observers have been disappointed with the number of petitions filed in the first few weeks. “Marijuana cases are trickling in but it’s not at the rate we know is out there,” said Hernandez. As of January 1, 2018, fewer than 5,000 court petitions have been submitted to the state for re-sentencing or reclassification under Proposition 64. 

The solution appears to be more communication.  According to Alex Traverso, who is communications chief for the Bureau of Cannabis Control of California, “Education and outreach for [expunging records] wasn’t really given to any one agency, so it seems that more is being done at the local level to highlight this option for people who choose to clear their record.”

As California attorney Eric Shevin noted, “In November 2016 when Prop 64 passed, immediately, as of the next day, individuals that had charges that would have been either misdemeanors under Prop 64 or completely legal under Prop 64 had the right to go back to court to petition to have their records to be changed. Many people were unaware of it … [and are] still unaware of it.”

Proposition 64 not only reclassifies many marijuana felonies to misdemeanors and eliminates the criminal classification of personal possession or cultivation, but also applies all of these changes retroactively, a condition unique to California. It will have the most significant impact in California’s minority communities, where a disproportionate of criminal enforcement occurred.

Proposition 64 is intended in large part to address the decades of law enforcement pressure on minority communities, in which a large percentage of arrests were made. Although Black residents make up just nine percent of the population in Los Angeles, they accounted for 49 percent of marijuana-related arrests from 2000 to 2017. This statistic is based upon Los Angeles Police Department statistics.

The DPA and partner organizations have been holding community expungement fairs. Lawyers and paralegals assist participants complete the maze of paperwork required for relief under Proposition 64. The service is free, which is helpful for many because private lawyers charge upwards of $3,000 for the same service. Turnout at the events ranges from about 75 to 300 people—many facing multiple charges. 

Although recent public warnings by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions that the federal government will not honor the state legalization of marijuana might affect sales, the federal government has no ability to interfere with the rest of Proposition 64, including the sentencing modification and expungement provisions. This is a welcome development for thousands of California residents now eligible for a second chance. 


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