//Free At Last?

Free At Last?

By Dave Fountinelle | davebh1975@gmail.com

In 2016, California voters passed proposition 64, the Control, Regulate, and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act. In the near four years since then, legal recreational cannabis has become one of the fastest-growing and most lucrative new businesses in the state, attracting big money, corporate interest, and investors from all over the globe. Even former Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, has reversed the staunch anti-pot position he held during his 12 terms in congress to become a pitchman for corporate cannabis. He’s currently lobbying his former colleagues in Washington to legalize recreational cannabis at the federal level. Boehner’s sudden ideological 180 is motivated far less by an altruistic change of heart than it is by the fortune he stands to make if he can get the legislation passed. The impetus behind Boehner’s push for legalization is a proposed merger between Acreage Holdings – a marijuana investment firm – and Canopy Growth, a Canadian company that is the largest cannabis holding in the world. Boehner sits on the board of Acreage Holdings and owns 625,000 shares of the company. The deal would be worth an estimated $3 billion. It would net Boehner a cool $20 million payday if he can convince Washington to legalize it.

Indeed, there is no more significant example than the Acreage Holdings/Canopy Growth merger of how much the climate surrounding cannabis has changed over the last decade. As more and more states approve cannabis legalization, investors are getting a big hit of the billions that previously were flowing to the black market and loving the high. For those who have been fighting the good fight for legalization, all of this is both vindication and validation for decades of work to change attitudes and sway public opinion. However, for the ones working on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of inmates still sitting behind bars for non-violent, marijuana-only offenses, the breakneck growth of the recreational cannabis industry throws a glaring spotlight on just how much slower and more complicated the changes have been coming for their clients. And, as black males make up a disproportionately higher percentage of inmates incarcerated for marijuana-only offenses, in addition to serving statistically harsher sentences than whites and Latinos convicted of the same crimes, there is growing criticism of a racial double standard that sees white men making millions off the same industry used to demonize black men.

In Los Angeles County, 8% of the residents are black, yet they make up 30% of the people jailed for marijuana-only offenses. In fact, blacks are the only racial group in LA county with a higher percentage of the prison population than their overall population in the county. Whites make up 27% of the total population for LA county, and only 20% of those incarcerated for marijuana-only crimes. Latinos, who comprise 49% of the LA county population, account for about 42% of those convicted of marijuana-only offenses. Blacks also received disproportionately longer sentences than whites and Latinos. In many cases, from 25-40% more time for the same offenses.

Since the passage of prop 64 in 2016, progress for inmates trying to get their marijuana convictions cleared has been both slow and complicated. Advocacy groups long complained of the unnecessary redundancies and bureaucratic red tape that slogged the process. Many inmates weren’t even aware their conviction was eligible for expungement. In April, prosecutors in LA and San Joaquin county took a significant step to expedite the process when they partnered with Code for America, a nonprofit tech company that developed an algorithm able to scan sentencing data and identify every eligible case in seconds. While this technology will potentially save these counties millions in time and resources used to identify eligible cases, it doesn’t mean an instant dismissal for those convicted. Inmates must still go through the court system to have their convictions cleared.

CaNorml and the ACLU have been two of the loudest voices critical of the lack of progress on the side of the courts in getting these convictions cleared. They argue that it is unacceptable for inmates to still be behind bars for marijuana-only offenses almost four years after prop 64 passed. The role race plays in the process continues to be heavily scrutinized as well. With critics pointing out that blacks and Latinos are lagging significantly behind white inmates when it comes to the rate their convictions are cleared.

Before leaving office, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a measure aimed at having all eligible marijuana convictions expunged by 2020. As we enter into the new year, that goal is still a work in progress. While the efforts of LA and San Joaquin county prosecutors to clear approximately 54,000 convictions is a positive step, there are still over 250,000 people behind bars for marijuana-only crimes in the rest of the state. As John Boehner lobbies Washington to help him make a fortune off the industry he once fought to keep illegal, cannabis reform advocates are questioning the lack of similar enthusiasm for expunging the records of those imprisoned by that illegality.