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SF will wipe thousands of marijuana convictions off the books

SF Gate logo SF Gate 1/31/2018 By Evan Sernoffsky
Nikki Lastreto, who owns cannabis brand Swami Select shows off some cannabis on her farm in Humboldt County, Calif., on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017. On Wednesday, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón announced he will begin retroactively applying California’s legal marijuana laws to past cases. © Gabrielle Lurie, The Chronicle Nikki Lastreto, who owns cannabis brand Swami Select shows off some cannabis on her farm in Humboldt County, Calif., on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017. On Wednesday, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón announced he will begin retroactively applying California’s legal marijuana laws to past cases.

San Francisco will retroactively apply California’s marijuana-legalization laws to past criminal cases, District Attorney George Gascón said Wednesday — expunging or reducing misdemeanor and felony convictions going back decades.

The move will affect thousands of people whose marijuana convictions brand them with criminal histories that can hurt chances for finding jobs and obtaining some government benefits.

Proposition 64, which state voters passed in November 2016, legalized the recreational use of marijuana in California for those 21 and older and permitted the possession up to one ounce of cannabis. The legislation also allows those with past marijuana convictions that would have been lesser crimes — or no crime at all — under Prop. 64 to petition a court to recall or dismiss their cases.

Rather than leaving it up to individuals to petition the courts — which is time consuming and can cost hundreds of dollars in attorney fees — Gascón said San Francisco prosecutors will review and wipe out convictions en masse.

The district attorney said his office will dismiss and seal more than 3,000 misdemeanor marijuana convictions in San Francisco dating back to 1975, and review and re-sentence thousands of felony marijuana cases.

Gascón made the announcement at a news conference at which he was joined by city Supervisors Malia Cohen and Jeff Sheehy, along with Nicole Elliot, director of the city’s Office of Cannabis, Laura Thomas of the Drug Policy Alliance reform group, and the Rev. Amos Brown, president of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP.

Advocates for poor and minority communities have long complained that marijuana laws are applied disproportionately to the impoverished and people of color. A 2013 study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that African Americans were more than twice as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as whites, despite similar levels of use.

In San Francisco, African Americans were four times as likely as whites to be arrested for possession, the study found.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, nearly 5,000 people statewide have petitioned courts to have their marijuana convictions expunged since Prop. 64 took effect. On Jan. 9, Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, introduced AB1793 to “allow automatic expungement or reduction of a prior cannabis conviction.”

However, the number of such convictions statewide over the years runs into the millions, and ordering courts to expunge them on a broad scale could cost millions of dollars.

Evan Sernoffsky is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: esernoffsky@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @EvanSernoffsky

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