San Fran. Overturning Convictions After Marijuana Decriminalization

Retroactive marijuana decriminalization by San Fransisco will mean hundreds of thousands will see their criminal convictions wiped without having to do a thing.
(AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

By retroactively applying new state marijuana decriminalization laws, thousands of San Francisco residents could see their criminal convictions completely erased without having to do a thing.

In an unprecedented move, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón announced the city would be retroactively applying new marijuana decriminalization laws to past misdemeanor and felony convictions — which would mean completely expunging criminal records in many cases.

City DAs Will Apply Marijuana Decriminalization for All

State voters passed proposition 64 in November 2016, which legalized marijuana for recreational use for those over 21, as well as possession of the drug up to one ounce, according to the San Fransisco Gate. It included a provision that would allow people with criminal convictions to petition the court to have their case considered for reduction or dismissal.

Since then, 5,000 people statewide have petitioned to have their convictions reviewed, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.

However, rather than wait for citizens to come forward, San Francisco prosecutors will take a proactive stance, and begin the process of reviewing and expunging convictions, “en masse.” This will save an enormous amount of time and money, Gascón said.

Instead of waiting for people to petition — for the community to come out — we have decided that we will do so ourselves,” Gascón said. “We believe it is the right thing to do. We believe it is the just thing to do.”

This means more than 3,000 misdemeanor charges will be sealed by prosecutors, and an estimated 4,940 felony convictions will be reviewed, and possibly recharged, taking into account the new laws.

Announcement is a Win for Marijuana Decriminalization Advocates

According to a 2013 study by the American Civil Liberties Union, in San Francisco, African Americans were four times as likely to be arrested for possession than whites. This fact disproportionately affected their ability to be approved for federally subsidized housing, student loans and other programs.

“This is a giant step for justice,” Rev. Amos Brown, president of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP, said. “And it is a step toward setting black people free to live in the community, to have jobs, to have health care, to have a decent education, and we just need to keep this good thing a-rollin’.”

Felony and misdemeanor convictions are often a barrier to finding employment and housing, the passage of prop 64 will break down those walls for thousands of people.

Automatic Retroactive Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Proposed in State Legislature

Assemblyman Rob Bonta, of Alameda, California, introduced a bill in January that would “allow automatic expungement or reduction of a prior cannabis conviction.” Though passage of Prop 64 included the ability to petition the courts, Bonta said the process is too “burdensome.”

Opponents of the bill are concerned about the cost of the clerical effort any such legislation would create.

Read more of EfficientGov coverage about state marijuana laws, as well as pushback at the federal level:

3 Things to Know About a DOJ Crackdown in States with Legal Marijuana

Sessions Unleashes Federal Prosecution of State Legal Marijuana

About the author

Rachel Engel

Rachel Engel

Author Rachel Engel is also Associate Editor of She is based in Kansas.