In addition to legalizing recreational weed in California, Proposition 64 allows individuals who have been convicted of low-level marijuana offenses to have their convictions reduced or dismissed. An adult convicted of a minor offense (like possessing under 28.5 grams of weed, or growing 6 pot plants) can petition the court to have their case reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor, or even dismissed and sealed.
State officials do not keep track of the total number of individuals who have taken advantage of this provision, but at least 2,500 requests have been filed to reduce convictions or sentences to date. More than half of California counties have not reported their data from the first quarter of this year, so the actual number may be even higher.
Attorneys who specialize in cannabis crime have reported a steady flow of clients interested in taking advantage of the new law, and have noted that prosecutors have not contested the majority of these petitions. In San Diego County, petitions to reduce sentences or convictions were granted in nearly 400 cases, according to Rachel Solov, chief of the collaborative courts division of the district attorney’s office.
“Whether we agree with the law or not, our job is to enforce it,” Solov said. “It’s the right thing to do. If someone’s in custody and they shouldn’t be in custody anymore, we have an obligation to address that.” Prosecutors in the county researched which convicts would be eligible for sentence reductions, and notified the public defender's office, allowing the individuals to get into court quickly. Some of those who were convicted were freed immediately.
Attorney Bruce Margolin, who has been defending marijuana offenders and advocating for legalization for decades, said that the process was not so smooth in other counties. Margolin reported that most judges and prosecutors he encountered “were totally unprepared” to deal with these petitions. “It’s amazing. You would have thought they should have had seminars to get them up to speed so we don’t have to go through the process of arguing things that are obvious, but we’re still getting that.”
But even as some Californians are finally escaping the consequences of marijuana prohibition, others are still being arrested for marijuana offenses and languishing in federal prisons. In 2015 alone, over 2,000 Californians were put in prison for cannabis offenses. Anyone convicted of a federal marijuana offense is unable to petition for a reduced sentence, and many of them are facing sentences of 20 years or more.