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Marijuana Legalization Takes Root In San Diego Courts

Medical marijuana clone plants are shown at a medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, Feb. 1, 2011.
Associated Press
Medical marijuana clone plants are shown at a medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, Feb. 1, 2011.
Marijuana Legalization Takes Root In San Diego Courts
Marijuana Legalization Takes Root In San Diego Courts GUEST: Andrew Bowen, metro reporter, KPBS News

Our top story on midday edition it's no longer a crime to possess, use, or grow marijuana for personal use in California, but there are a lot of people who were arrested and convicted and serve time for doing just that. Now the proposition 64 legalizing recreational marijuana has gone into effect San Diego County law enforcement is working to update the system and get justice for those who got caught up in the states harsh marijuana laws. Joining me is Andrew Baldwin. In your report you say about 20 people had been released from custody early in San Diego since proposition 64 asked. How does it actually change sentencing laws for marijuana? For people 21 and older it's now legal under state law to possess, transport, giveaway, and grow small amounts of marijuana. For people under 21 but are still legally adults, there is a fine and an infraction with some drug education and committee service requirements. Be on that a lot of felonies have been reduced to misdemeanors things like possession with intent to sell and the law got stricter for smoking or consuming marijuana in public. Is also noteworthy that there has been no change of penalties to selling marijuana to a minor or driving under the influence. So some people got out of jail because of proposition 64 was passed. It is -- is it also retroactive for people that serve type has a criminal record? Yes, this goes back to the beginning of prohibition of marijuana. So people that got caught up on the harsher drug policies they can asked to have their criminal records changed. There are some exceptions for registered sex offenders and convicts with a super strike on the record. So for anyone hearing that this law will never fully release child molesters are murderers onto the streets, that is not the case. Is it the responsibility of the people who are serving time or who have this on the record to petition for a reduction or are the attorneys seeking them out? It depends. I will go back a little bit in time about a month before the election actually took place, the District Attorney's Office sat down with the public defender's office and they came up with a plan to repair for legalization because they saw it was likely to pass. Both offices were proactive in identifying people in custody and people on probation who would be eligible for resentencing under proposition 64. When it comes to the retroactive changes to criminal records the burden falls on the people who were convicted of that crime. The public defender's office is it will try and seek out people that it is represented in the past. So people that are declared indigent and try to file petitions on their behalf. For the most part, it'll be up to those people to seek out private attorneys or ask the public defender's office to file these petitions. The DA are working together on this is this cooperation typical? It is an interesting question because in general the religion -- the relay ship is adversarial. It started with the alignment so when several inmates were transferred from state prisons to county jails and also two years ago California voters approved proposition 47, which reclassifies many felonies and misdemeanors. Both the DA and the public defender's office say they learned lessons for dust from propposition 47. I spoke with Jane Gilbert and here's what she said. This is not an adversarial project. We all go -- agree that this is possible and let's get an efficient way to get them through quickly and not impact the courts and or offices. These are the types of lessons that they've picked up from propposition 47. Yes. The petitioning process is for resentencing or changing a criminal record is under similar. A lot of the lessons they talked about that they learned is familiarity with the bureaucracy with the forms and process and also knowing whom to ask for information. So they approach the state prisons and county jails asking who is currently in custody and might be eligible for these things. They also approached the County probation Department. It is sort of knowing how to navigate the whole petition process. Studies have shown that marijuana laws have disproportionately impacted African-Americans because they were more likely to be incarcerated because of marijuana violations. In regard to that proposition 64 has a social justice angle to it as well. I think that was one of the things that the supporters were really proud of. The greatest impact of proposition 64 will be on people who were in jail and now are free and can sort of clear their names because what they previously committed is no longer crying. Having a felony can also prevent you from getting a job or professional license or federal student loans. Getting that cleared can really have a great impact on people's lives. Also once the state sets up the regulatory system for marijuana sales and cultivation some tax dollars that they will be collecting on marijuana are specifically designated for programs like job placement centers and substance abuse treatment programs in communities that were most affected by past drug policies. This is really a testament to how thorough proposition 64 was when the state legalized marijuana. There was a lot of criticism that it was like okay, now it is legal and no one knew what the law was and how to comply with it. The offers of proposition 64 say they learn from the past mistakes and problems with how laws were written in the past. Without a doubt, there will be problems as we move into this new era of legal marijuana. This law was much more comprehensive than laws that were passed in the past. I've been speaking with Andrea Bowen Metro reporter. Thank you. You are welcome.

Marijuana Legalization Takes Root In San Diego Courts
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.

RELATED: What Will Pot Legalization Cost San Diego?

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.

Marijuana Legalization Takes Root In San Diego Courts

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.

Deputy District Attorney Rachel Solov thumbs through a stack of petitions for resentencing filed under Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana in California, Dec. 7, 2016.
Nicholas McVicker
Deputy District Attorney Rachel Solov thumbs through a stack of petitions for resentencing filed under Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana in California, Dec. 7, 2016.

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."