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California Lawmakers Pass Bill to Overturn Pre-Legalization Marijuana Convictions

In California, those who have non-violent marijuana convictions could have a chance to clear their names.

A.J. Herrington

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California Lawmakers Pass Bill to Overturn Pre-Legalization Marijuana Convictions
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California lawmakers have passed a bill directing prosecutors throughout the state to overturn convictions for acts that are no longer illegal under the state’s Prop 64 cannabis legalization initiative. The bill would also reduce many felony convictions for marijuana-related crimes to misdemeanors.

The measure, Assembly Bill 1793, was passed by the California Senate Wednesday with a bipartisan vote of 22-8 after being approved by the California State Assembly on May 31 by a vote of 43-28.

If the bill is signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, it will direct the state Department of Justice to identify cases from between 1975 and 2016 that are eligible to be overturned or reduced by July 31, 2019, and notify the appropriate district attorney for action. Prosecutors will then have until July 1, 2020 to decide if they want to challenge the reduction or elimination of any of those convictions.

Prop 64, passed by voters in 2016, legalized the recreational use and sale of cannabis and eliminated many marijuana-related crimes. That decriminalization also applied retroactively, making many eligible for a reduction or elimination of past cannabis convictions. Those with convictions for non-violent felonies including possession or distribution of less than one ounce of cannabis are eligible for reduction to misdemeanors. Prosecutors have the right to challenge relief based on the criminal history of affected individuals.

Thousands of Cases Eligible For Relief

The justice department estimates that 220,000 convictions qualify to be reduced or eliminated.  Prosecutors in San Diego and San Francisco have begun to proactively reduce or eliminate convictions, but many other district attorneys in the state have said that they do not have the resources to follow suit. That puts the burden of relief on those with the convictions, many of whom may not be aware that they are eligible. Some with convictions that qualify for a reduction or elimination have taken it upon themselves to petition the court for relief, but only a small minority of those who are eligible have done so.

Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco who voted for the measure, said it “creates a simpler pathway for Californians to turn the page,” according to an Associated Press report.

State Sen. Joel Anderson, a Republican from San Diego County, said that reducing felony convictions to misdemeanors will allow people to regain lost civil rights, including gun ownership.

“This bill will take those people off the prohibited list, save us time and money,” Anderson said.

AB 1793 was introduced by Democratic Assembly Rob Bonta of Oakland. He said that “the role of government should be to ease burdens and expedite the operation of law — not create unneeded obstacles, barriers, and delay.”

Although AB 1793 received broad bipartisan support, not all lawmakers agreed with the elimination of past convictions. Republican Sen. Jim Nielsen of Gerber argued against passage of the measure by his colleagues in the Senate.

“This directs us to forget any prior behavior that was illegal,” Nielsen said. “They should not be given a pass.”

With the approval of AB 1793 by both houses of the California legislature, the bill now heads to Gov. Jerry Brown for his approval.

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