San Francisco Takes a Big Step Forward in Dealing With the Crimes of the War on Drugs


Here’s a bit of good news as we recover from our State of the Union-induced hangovers: San Francisco will retroactively expunge thousands of residents’ marijuana convictions from their records, the city’s District Attorney announced Wednesday.

A little background: in 2016, California voters passed a ballot initiative legalizing recreational use of cannabis. Starting on January 1, Californians over 21 can buy recreational weed from dispensaries and possess up to one ounce of cannabis. The decision by San Francisco DA George Gascón will retroactively apply the new law, allowing the records of thousands of people convicted on low-level drug charges to be wiped clean.

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

The district attorney said his office will dismiss and seal more than 3,000 misdemeanor marijuana convictions in San Francisco dating back to 1975, and review and re-sentence thousands of felony marijuana cases.

It’s hard to underestimate the damage that racial disparities in policing and sentencing have wrought, especially when it comes to drug use. A 2013 report from the American Civil Liberties Union found that black San Franciscans are more than four times as likely as white residents to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite being a comparative fraction of the city’s population.

For those who have served jail time, having a past drug offense on your record can still prevent you from getting a job or receiving government benefits. Thanks to the long arm of the War on Drugs, black people in particular have been largely shut out of the legal weed boom.

The conventional wisdom for a long time has been that legalizing marijuana will give massive relief to people of color, who bear the brunt of America’s drug laws. But while legalization has dramatically reduced the number of people who get arrested for using, that hasn’t eliminated racial disparities in how the existing laws are enforced.

A recent study from the Drug Policy Alliance found that racial disparities in drug arrests persist even in states that have legalized marijuana. In Colorado, marijuana arrests for white people decreased by 51 percent, compared to 33 percent for Latinx people and 25 percent for black people. And in Washington, DC—where the possession and cultivation of small amounts of recreational weed became legal in 2015—black people are still 11 times more likely than white people to be arrested for public consumption of marijuana.

What San Francisco is doing is a good step forward, and will hopefully help open doors for people who were convicted of a bogus crime. But racism in the American justice system can’t be so easily wiped away.

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