Pubdate: Wed, 20 Apr 2016
Source: East Bay Express (CA)
Column: Legalization Nation
Copyright: 2016 East Bay Express
Author: David Downs


Legalizing cannabis could reduce sentences and clear criminal records 
for millions.

Here's something to toast to on the week of 4/20: Millions of 
Californians with an old pot crime conviction besmirching their 
records could see the scarlet letters vanish if voters legalize 
marijuana on November 8. And those in prison for cannabis offenses 
that are no longer considered crimes could petition for a reduced sentence.

"If we have victory here, it will set the new standard for what can 
be done," said Tamar Todd, director of legal affairs at the Drug 
Policy Alliance, an international group helping to fund and direct 
the pot legalization effort in California.

The Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA) contains provisions that help 
end the Golden State's mass incarceration epidemic, whereby low-level 
drug offenders are scooped up, tagged as felons, and marginalized for 
a lifetime as they cycle in and out of jails and prisons.

Ellen Flenniken, deputy director of development for the DPA, said in 
an April webinar that the United States has 5 percent of the world's 
population, but 25 percent of the world's prisoners. Flenniken said 
the US "is now addicted to mass incarceration."

The US makes 1.5 million drug arrests for each year, about half for 
pot. Blacks are between two and ten times more likely than whites to 
be caught up in the drug war, even though statistics show that 
marijuana use is about equal among races.

California was one of the first states in the nation to criminalize 
cannabis use a century ago, and leaders deliberately targeted 
minorities, who they feared would initiate whites into cannabis use. 
In reality, cannabis tincture was on sale in pharmacies until 1947.

President Richard Nixon placed cannabis atop the federal list of the 
world's most dangerous drugs in 1972, and pot's ongoing Schedule 1 
status means that in the eyes of federal law enforcement it has no 
medical use and a high potential for abuse. But audio recordings from 
the Nixon White House, and statements from his top policy aides show 
he used pot prohibition to target the Anti-Vietnam War left and 
Blacks who Nixon viewed as his political enemies. Pot arrests in 
California spiked to over 100,000 in 1974 and peaked again at around 
80,000 in 2008.

Marijuana decriminalization spearheaded by state Senator Mark Leno in 
2010 slashed those numbers to just under 20,000 in 2014. Only 6,411 
people were arrested for pot misdemeanors in 2014. Even so, a study 
by the Oakland Museum of California included as part of their new 
exhibit "Altered State," found that Blacks were disproportionately 
arrested for pot in Oakland.

But there is growing concern about the lack of Black marijuana 
business leaders. Part of the problem is the need for access to 
capital and real estate, two areas where whites have benefited for 
generations at the expense of Blacks through job and housing discrimination.

Rules that might prevent drug felons from obtaining state pot 
business licenses are another barrier. People with old pot 
convictions face job discrimination, whether it's becoming a teacher, 
or obtaining a professional license, and that ironically includes a 
state license to sell pot under the new Medical Marijuana Regulation 
and Safety Act.

But California - the state that popularized the draconian "Three 
Strikes" law in 1994 - is trying to end its addiction to mass 
incarceration. Prop 47, which passed in 2014 with support 
conservatives reduced many drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.

While some pro-pot activists criticize the personal possession limits 
of AUMA (one ounce of flower in public, six live plants in private) 
they're missing the revolutionary stuff buried in the 62-page law. It 
proposes to eliminate barriers to entering the new pot economy, 
estimated to reach $44 billion in value by 2020. AUMA contains "broad 
retroactive sentencing reform for other marijuana offenses on the 
books," said Todd of DPA. "Most existing felonies, save a few, are 
reduced to misdemeanors or infractions."

That includes low-level pot sales and possession with intent to 
distribute. AUMA also includes "complete decriminalization for minors 
and record destruction at age 18," meaning if you get an underage pot 
possession ticket, your college or employer won't be able to find it 
when you apply for financial aid, or a job. The federal government 
still bars college students from financial aid if they have a weed 
offense; and employers routinely reject applicants with even a whiff 
of weed on their record.

Incarcerated Californians would also be able to apply for a 
retroactive reduction in their sentence, or record expunction for 
crimes that are no longer crimes after legalization. "If you have an 
old marijuana felony for something that will no longer be a felony in 
the state, you can go into court and get your sentence reduced [or 
record expunged]," Todd said. "It will go back and undo much of the 
harm of prior marijuana sentencing in California, which will be 
significant for many individuals."

Because of its far reaching implications for racial justice, the 
California NAACP came out in support of AUMA in January. However, 
several pro-marijuana groups, like the California Growers 
Association, have stated that even if legalization loses, "it would 
not be a failure."

"The state legislature is listening after two decades of doing 
nothing," said CGA director Hezekiah Allen. "Win or lose, we're 
making progress."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom