Here’s something to toast to on the week of 4/20: Millions of Californians with an old pot crime conviction besmirching their records could see the scarlet letters vanish if voters legalize marijuana on November 8. And those in prison for cannabis offenses that are no longer considered crimes could petition for a reduced sentence.
“If we have victory here, it will set the new standard for what can be done,” said Tamar Todd, director of legal affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, an international group helping to fund and direct the pot legalization effort in California.
The Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA) contains provisions that help end the Golden State’s mass incarceration epidemic, whereby low-level drug offenders are scooped up, tagged as felons, and marginalized for a lifetime as they cycle in and out of jails and prisons.
Ellen Flenniken, deputy director of development for the DPA, said in an April webinar that the United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Flenniken said the US “is now addicted to mass incarceration.”
The US makes 1.5 million drug arrests for each year, about half for pot. Blacks are between two and ten times more likely than whites to be caught up in the drug war, even though statistics show that marijuana use is about equal among races.
California was one of the first states in the nation to criminalize cannabis use a century ago, and leaders deliberately targeted minorities, who they feared would initiate whites into cannabis use. In reality, cannabis tincture was on sale in pharmacies until 1947.
President Richard Nixon placed cannabis atop the federal list of the world’s most dangerous drugs in 1972, and pot’s ongoing Schedule 1 status means that in the eyes of federal law enforcement it has no medical use and a high potential for abuse. But audio recordings from the Nixon White House, and statements from his top policy aides show he used pot prohibition to target the Anti-Vietnam War left and Blacks who Nixon viewed as his political enemies. Pot arrests in California spiked to over 100,000 in 1974 and peaked again at around 80,000 in 2008.
Marijuana decriminalization spearheaded by state Senator Mark Leno in 2010 slashed those numbers to just under 20,000 in 2014. Only 6,411 people were arrested for pot misdemeanors in 2014. Even so, a study by the Oakland Museum of California included as part of their new exhibit “Altered State,” found that Blacks were disproportionately arrested for pot in Oakland.
But there is growing concern about the lack of Black marijuana business leaders. Part of the problem is the need for access to capital and real estate, two areas where whites have benefited for generations at the expense of Blacks through job and housing discrimination.
Rules that might prevent drug felons from obtaining state pot business licenses are another barrier. People with old pot convictions face job discrimination, whether it’s becoming a teacher, or obtaining a professional license, and that ironically includes a state license to sell pot under the new Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act.
But California — the state that popularized the draconian “Three Strikes” law in 1994 — is trying to end its addiction to mass incarceration. Prop 47, which passed in 2014 with support conservatives reduced many drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.
While some pro-pot activists criticize the personal possession limits of AUMA (one ounce of flower in public, six live plants in private) they’re missing the revolutionary stuff buried in the 62-page law. It proposes to eliminate barriers to entering the new pot economy, estimated to reach $44 billion in value by 2020. AUMA contains “broad retroactive sentencing reform for other marijuana offenses on the books,” said Todd of DPA. “Most existing felonies, save a few, are reduced to misdemeanors or infractions.”
That includes low-level pot sales and possession with intent to distribute. AUMA also includes “complete decriminalization for minors and record destruction at age 18,” meaning if you get an underage pot possession ticket, your college or employer won’t be able to find it when you apply for financial aid, or a job. The federal government still bars college students from financial aid if they have a weed offense; and employers routinely reject applicants with even a whiff of weed on their record.
Incarcerated Californians would also be able to apply for a retroactive reduction in their sentence, or record expunction for crimes that are no longer crimes after legalization. “If you have an old marijuana felony for something that will no longer be a felony in the state, you can go into court and get your sentence reduced [or record expunged],” Todd said. “It will go back and undo much of the harm of prior marijuana sentencing in California, which will be significant for many individuals.”
Because of its far reaching implications for racial justice, the California NAACP came out in support of AUMA in January. However, several pro-marijuana groups, like the California Growers Association, have stated that even if legalization loses, “it would not be a failure.”
“The state legislature is listening after two decades of doing nothing,” said CGA director Hezekiah Allen. “Win or lose, we’re making progress.”