By Joe Livernois
Prosecutors in San Francisco announced last month they are expunging or reducing misdemeanor and felony marijuana convictions going back decades. But don’t expect Monterey County to follow suit any time soon.
“We couldn’t do it if we wanted to,” said Assistant District Attorney Berkley Brannon, “not without hand-pulling files. It would be an extraordinary effort.”
That’s the lede I wrote a couple of weeks ago for a story I never submitted to Voices of Monterey Bay. It seemed like sort of a big deal 18 months ago: Voters, by a wide margin, legalized the cultivation and sale of marijuana in California by approving Proposition 64, and they also allowed folks who had been convicted of certain marijuana crimes to expunge their records. The potheads finally won, after years of trying. Now they could get their bullshit convictions reversed.
As I got into the story and tried to penetrate the implications, I came to a revelatory conclusion: No one cares anymore. The folks I talked to, the folks who might have been passionate about the issue two years ago, didn’t really want to be bothered. If “shruggish” was a word, it would best describe what I encountered when pursuing the story.
The world is changing rapidly, thankfully, and the matter of who or who doesn’t get their pissant little pot convictions expunged doesn’t really matter, least of all, apparently, to those with old marijuana convictions in their past. As it turns out, the vote to legalize cannabis in California on Nov. 8, 2016, was not the most relevant thing that happened that day. Not by a long shot. Even the marijuana nerds get it. Now they’ve got Jeff Sessions to deal with.
I asked the local NORML rep. He was rather shruggish. Meh. Who cares? Folks simply aren’t clamoring to get their marijuana-conviction records expunged, said Ryan Munevar, executive director of the National Organization of Reform to Marijuana Laws in Monterey County. There are more important things to worry about. Like who’s going to replace retiring District Attorney Dean Flippo. Last thing we need is some eager-beaver who wants to impress Jeff Sessions, what with his reefer-madness hysteria.
I left a couple of messages at the county Public Defender’s office, thinking I might induce a salubrious comment about how Prop. 64 reflects the happy transformation of California’s criminal-justice system. But I made the mistake of being rather precise about why I was calling. No reaction is pretty much the reaction. Meh.
In fact, a state Judicial Council report released in December seems to bear out all that ambivalence. The council reported that only two petitions were filed last year in Monterey County by people who sought “redesignation” of their convictions, while five others sought the redesignation in Santa Cruz. In all of California, only about 4,500 people filed Prop. 64 petitions.
It feels as though perhaps some folks want to keep their pot convictions around. Something to show off to the grandkids, maybe, like a family relic or your navel tattoo. On the other hand, I have a sense that this must be a big deal to someone. For years it’s been an unassailable assumption that some people have not reached their full potential because of their stupid marijuana convictions, that they’ve been unable to get their dream job. And now, with Prop. 64, they’ve got a chance to erase this thing from their records.
Perhaps they simply don’t know about it. Or maybe they don’t care to talk about it. If someone is trying to expunge a pot bust from their life’s record, why would they want to talk to a journalist?
Nevertheless, with the expectation that I might actually find someone who needed a good expungement and who is willing to talk about it, I spread the word among my connections, asking them if they know someone who fits the description. The process is like I’m in high school again, trying to score a baggie of Mexican shit from a guy who knows a guy. If I ever find that connection, perhaps I’ll end up writing that story for Voices after all.
In any case, the marijuana thing is moving along without a lot of law-and-order quibbling. The entire endeavor has suddenly become respectable. The former Salinas police chief is now providing security to local growers, while a former county supervisor stays busy doing land-use consulting services for the county’s budding pot industry.
The only real legitimate controversy — and it is unfair — is that the established local hippie growers are getting overwhelmed by local fat cats who swallowed up all the local permits. That’s the real crime. The old hippie guys are getting screwed. The old guys who refined their THC with TLC, passing their secrets along generations. They toiled underground for decades in battle against CAMP. Remember CAMP? The Campaign Against Marijuana Planting? Rambo wannabes in camo, trained over several weekends at Gabilan Community College, swooping in from above in multi-agency deployments around harvest time, ripping out a year’s income from canna-dependent families, all high profile, your tax dollars at work, in days that ended with some square-jaw sergeant, the jaunty and camera-friendly PIO, telling news crews the “team” just eradicated a jillion dollars worth of pure menace. Imagine living through that! But the old guys did. They risked penury and penitentiaries. And today, now that we’re beyond all that, they’re still getting screwed by the county. Life in Big Sur, man.
The point is, it’s not a big deal anymore. In fact, it’s almost as easy to buy a couple of ounces of pot from storefront retailers in Monterey County as it is to purchase an AR-15. Almost. Show up at a dispensary and at least you get led through a couple of heavy doors, as though you’re contemplating the purchase of the Hope Diamond … or you’re in line to see Che Guevara’s grave.
Naively, I set off several weeks ago to learn if local prosecutors would follow San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón’s lead. Gascón announced on Jan. 31 that his office would review and wipe out appropriate marijuana convictions en masse. It’s an unprecedented move, and one that Gascón said would benefit people who have been held back from finding jobs and obtaining some government benefits because of their pot convictions.
Under Prop. 64, individuals must petition the court to expunge their case. But Gascón is wiping out all qualifying marijuana convictions.
If nothing else, prosecutors like Berkley Brannon have a WTF reaction to San Francisco’s announcement. As in, what’s Gascón been smoking? But not because of any moral ambiguities over whether folks should be allowed to skate because they violated a law that was a law then but not now. Mostly, the WTF is a response to the monumental workload Gascón has unleashed on his staff, which will have to dig through hundreds of thousands of old case files to find old convictions.
“San Francisco is looking at every case and will expunge cases retroactively, whether they are alive or dead,” Brannon said, “whether the individuals want them expunged or not. I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want it, but you never know.”
In Monterey County’s case, following the San Francisco precedent would require staff to pore through hundreds of thousands of cases, he said. The county’s case-management system was upgraded in 2011, and most criminal files prior to 2011 are in paper form. “I don’t know what kind of case-management system they have in San Francisco, but we just don’t have the kind of system to do what they’re doing,” Brannon said.
He added that the county files at least 10,000 misdemeanor charges annually. To find each case involving marijuana convictions, the county would have to sift through the disposition data on all those cases, he said. It’s very possible that countless defendants charged with multiple crimes pleaded out on the lesser marijuana crime, because simple possession looks better on the resumé than breaking-and-entering. Finding all those copped pleas would be a monstrous endeavor.
Even before Prop. 64, many convicted criminals in the state were eligible to have their cases reviewed and their convictions expunged as a result of the Public Safety Realignment Act of 2011. And then Proposition 47, approved by voters in 2014, classified non-serious and nonviolent crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies, except for defendants with prior convictions for murder, rape, certain gun crimes and certain sex offenses.
Shruggishly, I should mention that Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, recently introduced legislation that would automatically expunge or reduce prior cannabis convictions for violations that are now legal, essentially applying the San Francisco model statewide.
That bill, AB 1793, has not yet moved to committees.
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