California's marijuana legalization bill is one of the most sweeping pieces of criminal justice reforms in state history - and it could help former convicts get a leg up in the cannabis industry

California's marijuana legalization bill is one of the most sweeping pieces of criminal justice reforms in state history - and it could help former convicts get a leg up in the cannabis industry


REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

A woman holds marijuana for sale at the MedMen store in West Hollywood, California U.S. January 2, 2018.

  • California's cannabis legalization law is one of the biggest pieces of criminal justice reform in the state's history.
  • A key component of the law is resentencing prior marijuana convictions and allowing Californians to apply to get marijuana-related felonies wiped from their record.
  • Some cities in the state are taking it a step further, by helping people who have suffered under marijuana prohibition gain employment in the legal industry.

The law that legalized California's booming cannabis industry on January 1 goes beyond just allowing businesses to buy and sell marijuana. It's one of the most sweeping pieces of criminal justice reform in the state's history.

A key component of California's law, Proposition 64, is resentencing marijuana convictions - provided the person doesn't pose a "threat" to public safety, according to the text - and dismissing cannabis felonies and misdemeanors from criminal records.

San Francisco is getting a head start. The city's district attorney, George Gascón said on Wednesday that the city would retroactively apply the new marijuana law, automatically expunging felony convictions going back to 1975.


"California's Proposition 64 ballot measure was not only about marijuana legalization, it was one of the most progressive sentencing and criminal justice reforms in the entire country," Eunisses Hernandez, a policy coordinator at Drug Policy Alliance, told The Huffington Post earlier this month.

And some California cities are prioritizing former felons to get valuable business licenses, giving them a leg up on getting into the legal industry.

cannabis dispensary california

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

A customer browses screens displaying recreational marijuana products for sale at the MedMen store in West Hollywood, California U.S. January 2, 2018

Almost 500,000 people were arrested for marijuana in California in the last 10 years

The numbers are staggering. Between 2005 and 2016, 465,873 Californians were arrested for marijuana, according to a 2016 study from The Drug Policy Alliance. On top of that, black Californians were three-and-a-half times more likely to be arrested than white Californians for marijuana-related offenses in 2015, according to the Drug Policy Alliance study.

A subsection of Proposition 64 - the law that legalized cannabis in the state - deals specifically with this issue. It allows individuals serving prison time to apply for resentencing, and it also allows people to get marijuana-related felonies expunged from their record, which is a game-changer when it comes to getting a job after prison.


But it could take months for these changes to go into effect as the courts go over each application. Rodney Holcombe, a legal fellow at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Mother Jones that the policy could affect "close to a million people" who have served time in prison for marijuana.

Minimizing the barriers to entering the legal marijuana industry

Some cities in California are going a step further to minimize the barriers to entry into the legal marijuana industry.

Municipalities in the state issue a small number of licenses to businesses that want to grow, cultivate, and sell marijuana. Under Oakland's "Equity Permit" program, half of the licenses in the city will go to "equity" applicants who meet one of three qualifications.

Applicants who make less than 80% of the median income in Oakland qualify. The other options: applicants can prove they have previous marijuana convictions or live in one of the six neighborhoods the city has identified as having suffered a "disproportionately higher" number of arrests related to marijuana while it was illegal.

There's also a provision, called the incubator program, that lets regular applicants partner with equity applicants - or at least commit to providing rent-free space to equity applicants - in order to boost their chances of scoring a valuable license. The program is designed both to facilitate networking between former convicts and potential investors, as well as keep potential applicants from going to other cities with less restrictive licensing policy. Implementation, however, has been bumpy.


There are a few issues with the equity program: Many of the applicants don't have the proper documentation, according to The East Bay Times. And, while the program allows applicants to submit without identifying a location for their business, Oakland won't grant a license until a location is found.

As of December, close to 200 groups have applied for business licenses as equity applicants, reports San Francisco's KALW radio.

While numbers are hard to come by, the proportion of people of color in the cannabis industry - whether as dispensary owners, entrepreneurs, or in funds that have been set up to make investments in the industry - is much lower than white people.

There are a number of industry groups that are seeking to rectify this problem. Hood Incubator, based in Oakland, is a networking community and business accelerator for cannabis businesses owned by people of color. And Women Grow, along with Supernova Women, both seek to increase female representation in the industry.

cannabis dispensary california

REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

A customer waits at the counter to purchase marijuana as others wait in line at Harborside, one of California's largest and oldest dispensaries of medical marijuana, on the first day of legalized recreational marijuana in Oakland, California, U.S., January 1, 2018.


Congressional Democrats know this is a problem - and they're doing something about it

While a number of states, including California have legalized cannabis for adult consumption, the plant remains an illegal, Schedule 1 drug at the federal level.

Sen. Cory Booker sponsored a piece of legislation, called the Marijuana Justice Act, that not only seeks the de-schedule - and effectively legalize - cannabis at the federal level, but also provide "restorative justice," to communities most affected by cannabis prohibition.

Think of it as a federal version of California's Prop 64. Booker's legislation and its companion bill in the House (sponsored by Rep. Barbara Lee), lays the groundwork for an "inclusive" cannabis industry through two key pieces.

First, if passed, the bills would expunge federal marijuana convictions from criminal records. While federal convictions are a smaller piece of the puzzle than state convictions, this would still affect thousands of people. Second, the bills would create a $500 million "community reinvestment" fund that prioritizes communities that have a suffered disproportionate number of marijuana arrests and convictions for job training in the legal industry.