California Enacts Marijuana Crime Expungements, Equity Aid

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By, Toni Denis

A new mass expungement law, an “equity” law to provide $10 million in funding for disadvantaged business operators to enter the marijuana field, and a law to provide venues with temporary special-use permits for marijuana events were all signed into law by Democratic California Gov. Jerry Brown on Sept. 30, 2018.

With the passage of AB 1793, a law that potentially eliminates a marijuana conviction record, California becomes the first state to follow through on a comprehensive, automatic enactment of expungement put in place by the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, or Proposition 64,  approved by voters in November 2016. It becomes the first state to clear records without individuals needing to petition the courts. The records review will go as far back as 1975 and up to 2016.

Oregon passed a similar law when it legalized cannabis in 2014, but its beneficiaries must appeal to courts to get records expunged. Additionally, Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, as well as the cities of San Francisco, Seattle, and San Diego have laws similar to Oregon’s, giving an option to those with records of possession, cultivation, or manufacturing to have them sealed or expunged. At least half a dozen other states are considering similar laws.

While not all marijuana convictions reversed by the law will disappear from police records, county district attorneys will review California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s recommendations and decide if they will object to eliminating records of convictions, or reduce them from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Democratic Assembly member Rob Bonta, said a constituent approached him with questions about why the process to expunge a marijuana record was so difficult. Each person was required to file paperwork, provide fingerprint cards and go to court to make it happen. Filing fees were in the hundreds of dollars, but the loss of time at work and the need for some to hire a lawyer to ensure their cases were fairly reviewed added more costs.

“I think it’s common sense, practical and good government and will bring social justice to people,” Bonta said of the new law in an interview with Marijuana.com. “I think it could be a model for how a government could be a true partner and deliver on existing rights in a broad way. This could help a lot of people if it can be a blueprint for other states.”

The importance of the law’s passage lies in its impact on people with conviction records who are being denied access to housing, student loans, and jobs because of their records — even after serving time in their youth and staying out of trouble, Bonta said. Becerra played an instrumental role in fulfilling the provision in Proposition 64 to allow people to seek expungement, he added.

“It’s also a law that recognizes the impact on minorities,” Bonta said.

Dale Gieringer, director of the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), told Marijuana.com that the bill had great importance for people convicted of what is now not considered a crime.

“Over 216,000 prior offenders are eligible,” he said. “It was difficult and most people didn’t know it was available and they could take advantage of it.”

Another law that benefits minorities and disadvantaged business operators, SB 1294, assists entrepreneurs who need assistance in getting loans and navigating the process to start a marijuana business. State Sen. Steven Bradford introduced the bill in response to complaints from constituents who were unable to break into the marijuana grow and dispensary markets.

“Ninety percent of those entering the market were white, and we wanted to address that,” Bradford told Marijuana.com. “We were hearing from business folks who didn’t have a criminal record and were finding it not only impossible to get their paperwork reviewed but impossible to get funding.”

Despite business backgrounds, minority and lower-income entrepreneurs still found it daunting to get approval — or even to hire lawyers. The new law leverages language in Proposition 64 that promises access by putting the money in place to make it happen.

“I was running into minority individuals who had business acumen and business resources and felt it was a closed … good-old-boy situation in a market that was only nine months old,” Bradford said. “Legitimate business folks who were doing all the steps saw the door slammed in their faces. They were told that they weren’t qualified. These were lawyers and successful business people who had no background in cannabis — no one had it until a few years ago — (but the white applicants) were all getting licenses.”

The $10 million, which comes from monies raised by Proposition 64, will be directed to cities with programs in place to funnel it to would-be entrepreneurs. They include Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, and San Francisco.

Bradford also praised the law to expunge lower-level possession crimes, saying that both laws are righting wrongs. “This is about employment, about ownership and addressing the inequality in some of the communities that were impacted by the war on drugs.”

AB 2020, the bill to allow temporary marijuana event licenses, will have the broadest impact on the day-to-day lives of Californians, according to Gieringer of California NORML. After the passage of Proposition 64, the ability to legally smoke marijuana in public venues was reduced to county fairgrounds and only those with a special-use permit.

“I was at a lovely (marijuana-related) event on the Queen Mary where no marijuana was allowed because we weren’t at a county fairgrounds,” Gieringer said. “Despite the fact that the mayor of Long Beach told us how much he welcomed marijuana businesses and how they provide good-paying jobs — we were banned from smoking it in the smoking area.”

The new laws will take effect Jan. 1, 2019.

Not all marijuana-related bills were approved, however. Brown vetoed SB 829, which would have allowed the continuation of compassionate-care programs to provide free medical marijuana to patients without taxing it. Under Proposition 64, marijuana donations are subject to taxes up to $1,000 per pound. Another, AB 1996, that would have instituted better record-keeping of driving under the influence of marijuana offenses failed because of the cost to the Department of Motor Vehicles to track specific convictions in its computer system. Marijuana DUIs will continue to be lumped with alcohol and other drugs.

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