With California on the verge of legal recreational marijuana sales starting Jan. 1, hundreds of thousands of people could have their marijuana crime convictions wiped away, thanks to a lesser-known provision in the new state marijuana law.
California is offering a second chance to people convicted of almost any marijuana crime, with the opportunity to have their criminal records cleared or charges sharply reduced. State officials hope to reverse decades of marijuana convictions that can make it difficult for people to gain meaningful employment and disproportionately affect low-income minorities.
‘‘We worked to help create a legalized and regulated process for legal marijuana, but we also wanted to make sure we could help — some way, somehow — repair the damages of marijuana prohibition,’’ said Eunisses Hernandez, a policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance. The alliance said there have been 500,000 marijuana arrests in California in the past 10 years, and it estimates that up to a million people have reviewable convictions on their records.
A report earlier this year found that 77 percent of people arrested in 2015 for weed-related crimes in Oakland were black. This led officials there to launch the Equity Cannabis Permit Program in May of this year, which allows entrepreneurs to sell marijuana when recreational pot becomes legal in California on Jan. 1. The program will give priority to people who have been arrested and convicted of a marijuana crime after Nov. 5, 1996, when medical marijuana became legal in the state.
At least 4,500 people had filed petitions to have their sentences reduced, re-designated, or thrown out as of September, according to the California Judicial Council.
The change is part of a nationwide movement to reduce marijuana charges and make up for harsh penalties during the war on drugs. At least nine states have passed laws expunging or reducing marijuana convictions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Maryland, Oregon, and Vermont also now allow convictions for marijuana offenses that are not crimes under current law to be wiped off a criminal record.