Marijuana Legalization Takes Root In San Diego Courts
Thursday, December 8, 2016
Credit: Associated Press
Andrew Bowen, metro reporter, KPBS News
It's only been a month since voters legalized marijuana, but dozens of people are already seeing reduced sentences for marijuana crimes. Hundreds and potentially thousands more could see their criminal records changed.
California voters passed Proposition 64, which legalized adult recreational use of marijuana, by 14 percentage points — a landslide victory that was reflected almost identically in San Diego County.
Some aspects of the law, including the regulation of pot cultivation and sales, won't likely take effect until 2018. But the law's impact can already be measured in one area: criminal justice.
About 20 people convicted of marijuana crimes in San Diego County have been released from custody early because of reduced sentences under Proposition 64, according to the District Attorney's Office. Dozens more will get out of jail or prison sooner, and about 300 may be let off probation early.
Proposition 64 legalized the cultivation, possession and transportation of small amounts of marijuana by people 21 and older on the day after the election. For larger amounts, some felony-level crimes were reduced to misdemeanors. The California Judicial Council has already created forms to petition judges for resentencing.
The speed with which the courts in San Diego are processing Proposition 64 cases is largely due to lessons learned from a similar criminal justice measure: Proposition 47. That law, passed by California voters in 2014, also reduced several felony crimes to misdemeanors.
Rachel Solov, chief of the Collaborative Courts Division of the District Attorney's Office, said officials have been preparing since before election day to give people the justice they were entitled to under the law.
"Having learned from (Proposition 47), we started working with the Public Defender's Office prior to the proposition actually passing, and identifying those people that were in custody so that we could accomplish that much faster," she said. "It's been a much smoother process."
In addition to covering cases where convicts of marijuana crimes are still incarcerated or under probation, Proposition 64 also applies to people who have served their sentence but still have a criminal record. Those people can petition a judge to have a marijuana felony removed from their record. The law does not apply to registered sex offenders or people convicted of the most violent felonies.
Correcting past injustice?
Neither the District Attorney's Office nor the Public Defender's Office knows how many people could benefit from the retroactive resentencing of Proposition 64. But Deputy Public Defender Jane Gilbert said the work would be continuous.
"Obviously it's much more concentrated in the beginning, and it will taper off," she said. "But we'll be available to file petitions as long as we're in existence and as long as this law is in effect."
Supporters of Proposition 64 say the law will help correct past injustices. Studies on the application of marijuana laws have found African Americans have been disproportionately targeted by law enforcement, despite similar rates of use among whites. Proposition 64 also directs millions of special marijuana tax dollars to job placement centers and substance abuse treatment programs in communities most impacted by past drug policies.
Gilbert said the Public Defender's Office has received calls from people whose felony marijuana convictions have followed them for decades, preventing them from getting jobs, clearances or professional licenses.
"The overcriminalization of marijuana has impacted people's lives to an extent that I don't think is fair," Gilbert said. "And so for me, having a lot of this criminal behavior being classified as a misdemeanor is much more appropriate than saddling people with felony convictions for the rest of their lives."
Voters in the city of San Diego also approved Measure N, a local tax on recreational marijuana sales. But because the city's ordinance on marijuana dispensaries applies only to medical marijuana, it's likely a future City Council will revisit the question of how to license pot shops and where they can operate.
Melissa Bobrow, a defense attorney in San Diego who deals with marijuana cases, said San Diego is unlikely to allow free reign to recreational marijuana sales. But she said Proposition 64 was very thorough in creating regulations for all aspects of the marijuana industry, and that people seeking to open up recreational pot shops will need to be smart.
"These are people who are business savvy, or at least should be," she said. "Hopefully the sales pitch to the City Council will be a bit different than it has been in the past. And I think (Proposition 64) would make it a bit more palatable for everybody."
To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.