Expungement: A San Francisco Update

Jake Plowden of the Cannabis Cultural Association speakers with an attendee at the 2018 National Cannabis Festival.

Jake Plowden of the Cannabis Cultural Association speakers with an attendee at the 2018 National Cannabis Festival.

By Ruby Homan and Laila Makled

California, and particularly San Francisco, has always been on the forefront of cannabis legalization and social justice. In 1991, LGBT HIV/AIDS activists led the charge to voters’ approval of Proposition P, calling on state lawmakers to pass legislation allowing the medical use of cannabis. Five years later, in 1996, California was the first state in the U.S. to legalize medical cannabis.

In November 2016, California voters approved Proposition 64, legalizing adult-use cannabis. Historic in many ways, Proposition 64 was one of the first cannabis legalization initiatives in the United States that also aimed to retroactively dismiss and reclassify cannabis related offenses. Despite Proposition 64’s good intentions, those eligible to have charges dismissed were required to petition the court themselves, which can often be a costly, laborious and complex process. Almost half a million people were arrested in California for cannabis related crimes between 2006 and 2015, yet at the end of 2017, only 4,000 people petitioned the courts about their records.

Similarly in San Francisco, as of August 2018, only 23 people in the city had started the expungement process. Quickly acknowledging the barriers to petitioning for expungement, in January of 2018, the city took proactive steps to clearing and reducing records. San Francisco attorneys started looking through 7,900 marijuana convictions and taking automatic action by expunging low-level convictions and downgrading high-level offenses.

As with medical cannabis, the state of California followed San Francisco’s lead with record expungement, and in September 2018, Governor Jerry Brown signed a similar measure into law. Assembly Bill No. 1793 requires the state Department of Justice to identify cases “potentially eligible for recall or dismissal of sentence, dismissal and sealing, or redesignation” before July 2019. Depending on the case, prosecutors have until July 2020 to challenge any cases they feel should not be reduced or dismissed.

There are parallel movements and campaigns calling to end disenfranchisement and for expungement across the U.S. The most recent example is in Florida, where voters approved Amendment 4 just last week. This victory will reinstate the right to vote for 1.5 million people with prior felony convictions. While these strides are worth celebrating, we still have a lot of work to do. For example, in numerous legal state cannabis markets, a cannabis related felony prohibits you from participating in the industry.

As we continue to build this billion-dollar industry from the ground up, it is imperative that we level the playing field for those most impacted by the War on Drugs. While expungement is only a small part of the solution, it is a critical one.

Caroline Phillips