The District Attorney’s office in San Francisco, California has announced that inmates convicted of marijuana offenses will now be free.
On Wednesday, District Attorney George Gascón announced that following California’s statewide marijuana legalization initiative that voters approved in November 2016 (known as Proposition 64), more than 3,000 cannabis-related misdemeanor convictions dating back to 1975 will be erased from the books, and thousands more cannabis-related felonies will be re-sentenced.
While Proposition 64 legalized the recreational use and sale of marijuana, it also made it legal for Californians to carry up to an ounce on their person without facing any criminal charges. Language in Proposition 64 also allows for anyone convicted of a cannabis-related offense to petition to have their charges dismissed or reduced. However, following Gascón’s action, San Franciscans in jail for marijuana offenses are free from having to spend time and money on legal fees, as prosecutors will take it upon themselves to erase or re-sentence within their own office.
If other DA offices follow Gascón’s example, hundreds of thousands of California inmates could be free. Between 2006 and 2015 alone, the Drug Policy Alliance found that nearly half a million Californians were arrested for marijuana. And despite California decriminalizing cannabis in 2011, there were still 2,139 Californians who had been convicted, sentenced, and jailed for marijuana-only offenses in 2015. Using 2016-2017 figures from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, it costs an average of $70,812 to house one inmate per year. This means California taxpayers would save approximately than $151 million by freeing prisoners serving jail time for marijuana-only offenses.
This would also be a significant victory for people of color, as marijuana laws are disproportionately applied to minorities despite whites having similar levels of use. A 2013 study from the American Civil Liberties Union found that African Americans were more than twice as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. In 2015, 77 percent of people arrested in Oakland, California for cannabis-related offenses were black, despite black people making up only 24 percent of Oakland’s population.
Other states with legal marijuana laws on the books include Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington state, as well as the District of Columbia. Vermont became the first state to legalize marijuana via legislative action on January 23. While Calfornia’s Proposition 64 is unique in that it allows for sentences to be retroactively changed, Colorado is also allowing inmates serving time for cannabis offenses to petition for their release.
Matthew P. Robbins is a freelance economics contributor covering wages, budgets, and taxes. He lives in Chicago, Illinois with his husband and two cats.