In the U.S., nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational adult marijuana use. In California, adults aged over 21 can possess up to an ounce (28 grams) of the drug and grow up to six marijuana plants at home.
But a question which has long caused an uproar since states began legalizing recreational marijuana use is the fate of those who were previously criminalized for possessing the plant within the confines of what is now considered legal use.
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Many states have begun taking measures to redress this issue, with the city of San Francisco revealing its plans to retroactively decriminalize previously convicted persons, an effort which has huge implications for thousands of lives, especially for Black people in the state.
The city’s District Attorney, George Gascón, says it will immediately dismiss all marijuana misdemeanor convictions dating to 1975, affecting some 3,000 misdemeanor pot convictions, and will expunge the records of anyone who faced such charges. The city also plans to review all marijuana felonies recorded during this period and re-sentence them to misdemeanor offenses as appropriate, this could affect nearly 5,000 felonies. Violent felonies are not eligible.
According to NPR, “in 2000, African-Americans were 7.8 percent of San Francisco’s population but comprised 41 percent of marijuana arrests. By 2010 and 2011, African-Americans made up about half of the marijuana-related arrests, yet represented only 6 percent of the city’s population, according to the district attorney’s office.”
D.A. George Gascón explained, “these convictions no longer make sense. We want to address the wrongs that were caused by the failures of the war on drugs for many years in this country and begin to fix some of the harm that was done not only to the entire nation but specifically to communities of color.”
A 2016 ballot measure that legalized recreational cannabis use in California also decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. But because people had to petition for consideration, cost and not knowing kept many from taking advantage of the new measure.
“A criminal conviction can be a barrier to employment, housing and other benefits, so instead of waiting for the community to take action, we’re taking action for the community,” says Gascón.
The measure has been well received by many Black leaders, including the president of the San Francisco NAACP, Amos C. Brown, who told CNN, “the district’s attorney’s decision will help African-Americans who’ve been the victims of an unjust criminal justice system, denied equality of opportunity and had their humanity disrespected”.
But others, like Bishop Ron Allen with the International Faith Based Coalition, disagree. He opposes Gascón plan, explaining, “we want to see them in jail, educated, absolutely turned around. Please do not release them back into the community,” Allen told ABC7 news.