In an unprecedented move, the city of San Francisco will throw out thousands of marijuana convictions going back decades.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said Wednesday that city prosecutors will retroactively apply California’s marijuana-legalization laws to past criminal cases dating all the way back to 1975. With no action necessary from people who were convicted, 3,038 misdemeanor convictions will be dismissed and sealed.
And, NPR reports, prosecutors will review nearly 5,000 additional felony convictions to see if they can be reduced to misdemeanors.
It’s notable that the dismissals will happen automatically, requiring no effort on the part of those with marijuana-related offenses on their records to expunge those convictions themselves. Gascón, in a statement, noted that although petitioning to have these records cleared has been in place in San Francisco, the process is costly and can require legal help. It was noted that only 23 such petitions were filed in the last year.
The decision will disproportionately affect the city’s black and Latinx residents, who’ve been arrested at far greater rates than their white peers throughout the country.
According to NPR, which cites numbers from the district attorney’s office, San Francisco’s black residents made up just 7.8 percent of the city’s population but made up 41 percent of marijuana-related arrests in 2000. A decade later, even though the percentage of black people living in San Francisco dropped (to 6 percent), they made up an even greater share of marijuana-related arrests, at nearly 50 percent.
That number was even worse than California’s statewide average. According to a 2016 study by New Frontier Data, a firm that provides data analytics on the cannabis industry, nearly a quarter of all people jailed for marijuana-only offenses were black—even though black, Latino and white people consume marijuana at similar rates.
In a statement that stands in sharp contrast to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice’s new drug policies, Gascón said that San Francisco was “taking the lead to undo the damage that this country’s disastrous, failed drug war has had on our nation and on communities of color in particular.”
He further emphasized the racial disparities in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
“We know there were tremendous failures in the war on drugs, and we criminalized large sections of our community,” he told the paper. “The African-American and Latino communities were the most harmed by this.”
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom echoed Gascón, who said that he would like to see more counties follow San Francisco’s example.
The decision to clear old convictions provides “new hope and opportunities to Californians, primarily people of color, whose lives were long ago derailed by a costly, broken and racially discriminatory system of marijuana criminalization,” Newsom said.