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California Bill to Clear Marijuana-related Criminal Offenses Goes to Governor

By, Paul Elias

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A bill requiring California prosecutors to erase or reduce tens of thousands of cannabis-related criminal convictions was approved by the state Senate on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018, and now awaits Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature.

When voters passed Proposition 64 in 2016 to allow adult use of cannabis, they also eliminated several marijuana-related crimes. The proposition also applied retroactively to marijuana  convictions, but provided no mechanism or guidance on how those eligible could erase their convictions or have felonies reduced to misdemeanors.

The bill orders the state Department of Justice (DOJ) to identify eligible cases between 1975 and 2016, and send the results to the appropriate prosecutor.

The state DOJ estimates that almost 220,000 cases are eligible for erasure or reduction. The DOJ has until July 1, 2019, to compile the list of eligible cases and forward it to the appropriate district attorney’s office.

Prosecutors then have until July 1, 2020, to decide which cases on the DOJ list they want to challenge.

Since passage of Proposition 64, most California district attorneys have said they didn’t have the resources to review their records to identify eligible cases.

Marijuana-related criminal convictions could be erased from Californians’ records if Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown signs a law that passed the state Senate on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018, and the Assembly earlier in the year. (Associated Press File Photo/Josh Edelson)

Non-violent, felony convictions for possession or distribution of less than 1 ounce, or 28.35 grams, of marijuana are eligible for reductions to misdemeanors, though prosecutors can challenge applications based on the person’s criminal history. Felons with serious convictions such as murder, rape, and robbery are considered strikes under California’s “three strikes” law requiring stiff sentences for repeat offenders.

Some eligible people hired attorneys and petitioned courts on their own and prosecutors in San Francisco and San Diego counties reviewed past cases and took action on their own to erase or reduces thousands of cases combined.

But the vast majority of eligible people have not applied for relief, many of them not even knowing whether they qualified. Others saw the process as too expensive and complicated.

The bill was introduced by Democratic Assemblyman Rob Bonta, who represents parts of Oakland, and passed the Assembly earlier in 2018.

The bill passed the Senate 28-10-2 with bipartisan support on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018.

Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, who supported passage, said many with marijuana convictions don’t even know they are eligible.

Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener urges his colleagues Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018, in the Capitol in Sacramento to approve a bill requiring California prosecutors to erase or reduce thousands of cannabis-related criminal convictions. The Senate approved the bill 22-8, and it awaits Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature. (Associated Press Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Wiener said the bill “creates a simpler pathway for Californians to turn the page.”

Republican state Sen. Joel Anderson, who represents a rural district east of San Diego, said the bill will enable some eligible people to regain their gun rights by reducing felonies to misdemeanors. “This bill will take those people off the prohibited list, save us time and money,” Anderson said.

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