California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law on Sunday a bill that will simplify the process for expunging past convictions for some marijuana offenses. The measure, Assembly Bill 1793, was passed by the California Senate in August with a bipartisan vote of 22-8 after being approved by the California State Assembly on May 31 by a vote of 43-28.
Democratic Assemblymember Ron Bonta of Oakland, who sponsored the bill, said the new law will help lessen the continuing impact of cannabis prohibition on those with prior convictions.
“The failed war on drugs has, in so many ways, wreaked havoc, damage, pain, and anguish on so many Californians,” said Bonta. “This is where government can step in and make it better.”
Prop 64, passed by voters in 2016, legalized the recreational use and sale of cannabis and eliminated many marijuana-related crimes. That decriminalization also applied retroactively, making many eligible for a reduction or elimination of past cannabis convictions. Those with convictions for non-violent felonies including possession or distribution of less than one ounce of cannabis are eligible for reduction to misdemeanors.
“Prop. 64 provided redemption and rehab and a chance to rebuild those lives – these expungement and reductions are a big part of that,” Bonta said. “I wanted to make sure that the promise in Prop. 64 was kept.”
The justice department in California estimates that 220,000 convictions qualify to be reduced or eliminated. Prosecutors in some counties have begun to proactively reduce or expunge convictions, but many other district attorneys in the state have said that they do not have the resources to do the same. That puts the burden of relief on those with the convictions, many of whom may not be aware that they are eligible. Some with convictions have taken it upon themselves to petition the court for expungement, but at this point, only a small minority of those who are eligible have done so.
Rodney Holcombe of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group advocating for harm reduction in drug policy, said many of those eligible for expungement do not have the resources to file the necessary documentation with the appropriate court.
“It was so inaccessible for a variety of reasons,” said Holcombe. “This (new law) will empower people. My heart goes out to people who have had to navigate this process on their own. It’s confusing, expensive and tiring.”
Holcombe said that the Drug Policy Alliance would like to see other jurisdictions who have legalized cannabis follow the precedent set by California and AB 1793.
“Popular opinion has changed so much,” Holcombe said. “Lots of support has already been generated around the folks who have been convicted and are still burdened by these collateral consequences – and there’s growing interest in remedying that. “My hope is that this momentum can continue, and we can use California as a guide on how to move forward.”
“This is transformative,” said Holcombe. “This creates an opportunity for people to reclaim their lives.”
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