Everybody’s favorite ballot initiative, Prop. 64 legalized cannabis for adults 21 and over in California. In Donald Trump-era years, this happened a very long time ago: Weed became legal one weird night in November 2016, the very same evening our 45th president was elected.
And yet, in many ways, we’re still waiting for legalization to kick in.
In the years since, in some analyses, very little has gone right. The illegal market is eight times larger than the legal market. The small farmers who built the cannabis industry are shut out or outlaws. And instead of $5 eighths or whatever the brilliant economists looking at advanced models promised us, legal cannabis is outrageously expensive — so expensive that, in some cities, sales are shrinking. And in many other cities, cannabis retail sales are still illegal — same as it ever was.
Okay, so the weed market is jacked up, and people still hate weed. But this wasn’t just about dollars, or getting everyone stoned, or even conquering decades of propaganda and bad press. What about social justice? What about “righting the wrongs of the Drug War,” as the slick legalization campaign’s tagline (sometimes) promised (when it wasn’t castigating weed as bad and promising nobody would get any, anyway)?
Yes, about that! There are perhaps hundreds of thousands of people in California with cannabis convictions — people with criminal records for what is now legal conduct — who are still waiting for that promise to become fulfilled, despite a deadline of this summer for prosecutors to make it so. So far, by one analysis, only three percent of the Californians who have an estimated 200,000 cannabis convictions on their records have had their records cleared.
What’s taking so long? Well, for one, the people in charge don’t have elections to win. That may be the cynical analysis of L.A. District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s announcement Thursday that her office is asking a judge to throw out 62,000 felony convictions and another 3,700 misdemeanor cases in a single motion. In all, about 53,000 people will have their records cleared, as NPR reported.
Calling it the single “largest effort in California to wipe out old criminal convictions in a single court motion,” Lacey’s deliverance is powered by Code for America, a civic-minded computing-power nonprofit, which used algorithms to identify almost 66,000 pot busts from dusty Los Angeles County case files dating as far back as 1961.
“The dismissal of tens of thousands of old cannabis-related convictions in Los Angeles county will bring much-needed relief to communities of color that disproportionately suffered the unjust consequences of our nation’s drug laws,” Lacey said in a statement released Feb. 13.
Lacey first welcomed Code for America’s criminal-conviction-clearing effort, called Clear my Record, to L.A. a year and a half ago. The computer program both identifies eligible cases, and then automatically fills out the necessary paperwork to file with a judge — a sort of AI-powered attorney that’s now bearing fruit. But there are two things to keep in mind here.
One is that while Prop. 64 said that legalization would mean cannabis “offenders” could get their records cleared, it also said that all the lifting would be up to the offenders — for them to hire lawyers to file paperwork and attend hearings. This is not something someone whose life’s been upended by a petty drug bust always has the resources to do, as is evidenced by Code for America’s finding that 97% of pot busts Prop. 64 was supposed to clear are still there, and still hindering job and housing opportunities.
The other is that other cities have recognized, years ago, that reliance on “offenders” to clear their own names is a lame half-step, and that the lifting should be done by the very agencies that made the arrests and keep the records. (Government, in other words, should work for the people.)
That was the approach first unveiled in San Francisco a few years back by George Gascon, the former SF chief of police turned then district attorney, the first “top cop” to welcome Code for America geeks into his office to void cannabis convictions — and who, as fate and fortune has it, is currently challenging Lacey for her job.
Both Gascon and Lacey as well as the third challenger for the office, Rachel Rossi, a former public defender, all style themselves as reformers rather than tough-nosed “lock-em-up” prosecutors. In a profile on the race published earlier this month in the Los Angeles Daily News, Lacey said that voiding cannabis convictions would be a thing she’d soon do — and lo, her words rang true with her announcement last week.
That’s great, but what took Lacey so long? Jackie Lacey, the first African-American woman to hold the post, has been DA of Los Angeles County since December 2012. And it wasn’t until she encountered a difficult re-election campaign, with a challenger with perhaps better cannabis-reform bona fides than hers, that she filed the motion to reform her office’s marijuana-related criminal records.
As the Guardian reported, elected DAs in California had until this summer to choose whether to clear the records or fight in court to uphold them. It was highly unlikely that anyone would choose the latter path in Los Angeles, but as Code for America’s sobering statistic reveals, there are still plenty more old pot busts waiting for the right moment to go away forever. And that’s not cool.
TELL US, do you think all cannabis-related charges should be dismissed in “legal” states?