California legalized recreational cannabis more than two years ago, but thousands of people still have felony pot convictions on their records. This affects their ability to find employment, attend school, and obtain loans or housing.

On February 25, 2019, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon announced that his office is wiping out more than 9,300 such convictions, some of them dating back to 1975. That makes San Francisco the first city in the nation to take this step. Gascon called his decision, “the morally right thing to do.”

Code for America

Under Proposition 64, “The Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act” passed in 2016, those with marijuana felony convictions could petition to have their convictions expunged, but the process is so laborious – and involved hiring an attorney and appearing in court for a hearing – that to date only 23 people had bothered to do so.

San Francisco started out going through records manually and found roughly 1,200 eligible cases. Then the city teamed up with Code for America, a nonprofit using “the principles and practices of the digital age to improve how government serves the American public, and how the public improves government,” according to its website.

Code for America, a proponent of open source technology for government improvement, uses an algorithm called “Clear My Record,” which can go through cases and determine which ones are eligible for expungement. Gascon said that the city might use Code for America’s algorithm to identify cases eligible for expungement under Proposition 47, which reduced certain drug and theft crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.

Like marijuana expungement cases, the complexity of the process means relatively few people eligible under Proposition 47 have taken advantage of expunging their records.

San Francisco has a total of 9,362 people whose marijuana felony convictions will be expunged. Of those, 5,594 will no longer have felonies on their records. Gascon expects to have these cases in court in the next few weeks.

People of Color Most Affected

It’s no surprise that people of color are more often arrested for marijuana possession than white people. A 2013 American Civil Liberties Union study found black people are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though African-Americans are a much smaller percentage of the population. In San Francisco, African-Americans make up approximately 6 percent of the population but accounted for half of all marijuana arrests.

Not Without Critics

While most people cheered Gascon’s move, it was not without its critics. John Lovell, the legislative counsel to the California Narcotic Officers’ Association, said simply expunging this many convictions without reviewing the facts surrounding each case consists of “cavalier irresponsibility.”

Los Angeles Considering Similar Move

If San Francisco is the first city to conduct mass marijuana conviction expungement, it may soon find itself followed by its neighbor to the south. Los Angeles is considering a similar move, and if it goes forward, that may affect as many as 40,000 people convicted since 1993.

However, the exact number of those eligible for expungement has not been determined. Code for America plans to clear 250,000 marijuana convictions throughout the state by the end of 2019.