Following Berkeley’s lead, SF takes step to decriminalize marijuana offenses

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Rashad Sisemore/File

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The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office will begin weeding out past marijuana-related misdemeanors and felonies, giving convicted individuals a chance to walk free or receive lesser sentences.

State voters passed Proposition 64, which legalized the possession and recreational use of marijuana for adults 21 and older, in November 2016. The district attorney’s office will retroactively apply the laws to convictions dating from the past four decades, according to a Wednesday press release from District Attorney George Gascón.

Although Prop. 64 provides for reduction or expunction of a sentence when a petition is filed by a convicted individual, the district attorney’s office will be reviewing, recalling and resentencing up to 4,940 felony marijuana convictions and dismissing and sealing 3,038 misdemeanors that were sentenced before the passage of the proposition. According to the press release, this will not require any additional action from the convicted individuals.

Gascón announced the office’s intentions at a news conference Wednesday. Attendees included San Francisco Supervisors Malia Cohen and Jeff Sheehy, San Francisco Office of Cannabis Director Nicole Elliott, San Francisco NAACP President Dr. Amos C. Brown Sr. and Drug Policy Alliance Deputy State Director Laura Thomas.

Misdemeanor clearances will begin immediately, but felony cases “will take a little more time,” Gascón said.

According to California State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, the unprecedented move will affect thousands of people whose cannabis convictions brand them with criminal histories that may hurt their chances of finding jobs and obtaining housing. Skinner added that data show that before the implementation of Prop. 64, Black people were four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, even though there are no data to support that Black people use marijuana more frequently than white people.

San Francisco’s unprecedented policy change may be taking nods from a city across the Bay. Berkeley has been a major proponent for legalized cannabis use for decades: Since 1979, city laws have directed local police to downgrade pot law enforcement to its lowest priority, meaning virtually no one in Berkeley is arrested or cited.

California Assemblymember Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, introduced AB 1793, which would make it easier for marijuana convictions in California to be expunged or reduced, on Jan. 9.

Many individuals may not know they are eligible for expunction or reduction of past marijuana-related convictions, Bonta said. In some cases, convicted individuals may pay an extra fee for consideration for expunction, or they might hire an attorney, resulting in additional fees.

“I am not surprised that San Francisco was the first (city) to decide to support this policy, given its history and legacy of progressive, humane, compassionate criminal justice reform,” Bonta said. “This is an opportunity for us to deliver some semblance of justice for a group of individuals who have been hurt by wrongheaded criminal justice policies.”

Clarification:

A previous headline accompanying this article may have implied that Berkeley is reviewing past marijuana-related convictions. In fact, while Berkeley has not begun this process, it currently directs local police to neither cite nor arrest individuals for marijuana offenses.

Contact Jenny Weng at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @jennyweng1999.