San Francisco Attorney General George Gascón announced on Wednesday that the city will automatically apply California’s marijuana legalization laws retroactively. Consequently, scores of Black people convicted of misdemeanor possession will have their criminal records cleared.
Black and White people use marijuana at roughly the same rate, yet African Americans are locked up 3.73 times more for possession, a comprehensive ACLU study found. In San Francisco, African Americans were four times as likely as Whites to get arrested for possession. With a criminal record, it becomes a struggle to find employment. Often, a marijuana conviction is the first step to entangling people long term in the criminal justice system.
California legalized recreational marijuana in a statewide ballot in November, and the law went into effect in January. People can legally possess up to one ounce of cannabis. The law allows those convicted for possession prior to the new law to petition the court to dismiss their case. San Francisco decided to be proactive and bypass the petition process altogether and erase convictions dating back to 1975, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
This move comes in defiance of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement on Jan. 4 that he’s rescinding a marijuana policy from President Barack Obama’s administration that gave states a free hand to decriminalize weed. His announcement chilled the movement toward legalizing pot and signaled a return to enforcement of strict federal drug laws that disproportionately targeted people of color.
The so-called “Cole memo” from the Obama-era gave states a passive OK to craft their own marijuana laws with little or no opposition from the federal government. It represented a shift from strict oversight, as long as state laws didn’t threaten federal priorities, such as combating the distribution of drugs to minors.