Californians with marijuana crimes on their record can clear it up
Dave Gonzales was in his 20s when he followed his friends to Venice Beach on a sunny afternoon in 1985.
His buddies brought guitars to play music for the boardwalk crowd. Gonzales brought a joint to enjoy while he listened.
Before he could pass the joint to a friend, a hand grabbed his shoulder. A plain-clothes police officer then gave Gonzales a ticket.
Gonzales promptly took care of the $35 fine, thinking he’d paid for his mistake. But years later, when he went to the U.S. Post Office to apply for work, that joint cost him a job.
Three decades later, a misdemeanor charge for drug possession still hangs over Gonzales’ head.
Now that you can purchase legal recreational cannabis in California. Sporting sunglasses and long dreadlocks, 62-year-old Gonzales stood in a hallway at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, holding a Post-it note with his case number from 1985. He was in line with several hundred other people waiting for free legal advice during an “expungement fair” put on by the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance.
“I just need help to clear it up,” he said.
The March 17 event – staffed by volunteers wearing T-shirts that read “Changing lives through changing records” – was the largest clinic the DPA has held since Proposition 64 passed in November 2016.
Though most of the attention surrounding the initiative has centered on how it legalized recreational cannabis in California, the law also retroactively reduced penalties for just about every crime involving cannabis. Selling marijuana without a license was downgraded from felony to a misdemeanor, for example, while transporting up to an ounce of weed went from being a misdemeanor to fully legal for anyone 21 and older.
Californians with juvenile marijuana convictions
The changes were even more profound for juveniles. Prop. 64 was the nation’s first legalization measure that eliminated all cannabis-related criminal penalties for people under 18, with jail time and fines swapped out for community service and drug education courses.
The DPA estimates that up to one million people were eligible to have their crimes downgraded or cleared under Prop. 64. For those people, a change in their criminal background would mean wider access to jobs, housing, financial aid and other services that are currently out of reach. The DPA also estimates that 6,000 people who were in jail or prison when Prop 64 passed might be eligible to get their sentences reduced or even to go free.
But, so far, those are mostly just projections. More than 16 months after the measure passed, state data shows only a fraction of those who can clear up their records have even applied to do so.
People of color figure to be hurt the most. Though minorities and whites have used weed at roughly the same rates over the years, DPA data shows minorities have been much more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for marijuana-related crimes.
So nonprofit organizations, justice officials and legislators throughout California are working on ways to close that gap and restore rights to people hurt by the war on drugs. Yes, this will be a huge change for those interested in legal cannabis in California.