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New California Law Makes it Easier to Erase Old Marijuana Convictions

Lawmakers addressed the unfairness of people saddled with a lifetime criminal record for doing what is now a legal big business.

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Many trends have traveled across America from West to East. Another one may have been launched by California lawmakers.

Macduff Everton | Getty Images

A new law passed by legislators in the Golden State has made it easier for those who were convicted on marijuana-related charges in the past to either have their record expunged or get their current sentence reduced.

Rob Banta, a Democrat from Alameda, introduced the bill. After it was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, he Tweeted that the new law will “reduce or remove outdated cannabis convictions so people can turn the page & make a fresh start.”

Related: 7 Interesting Things to Know About Canada's Legalization of Marijuana

California breaks new ground

The commonsense driver behind the law is that many marijuana-related crimes are no longer crimes in California, where voters have approved legalization of cannabis for both recreational and medical use. Other states and some cities have passed similar laws. Oregon was first. Others include the states of Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts and New Hampshire and the cities of San Francisco, Seattle, and San Diego.

While the laws vary, each allows those with a conviction in areas such as possession, cultivation and manufacturing of marijuana to have their sentence reduced and their records sealed or expunged.

But in California, technology is taking a larger role. The system will be automated, allowing for faster action on expunging convictions. An estimated 218,000 people in California will benefit from the new law.

More states are expected to adopt, or at least seriously consider, California’s approach in the coming years.

Related: 5 Surprising Truths About Canadian Legalization

Why change the law?

With marijuana now legalized, California’s leaders felt it fundamentally unfair for those convicted of possession and cultivation of marijuana to have such convictions continue to affect their life. For example, those with a marijuana conviction face more difficulty getting loans, finding housing or landing a job with a black mark on their record.

Minority communities also are hit much harder by drug laws. A study from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Drug Policy Alliance found that black people have a 3.76 percent higher chance of being arrested on marijuana-related charges than white people.

It speaks to the fairness of the new law that there was no organized opposition, a rare thing in the current political atmosphere in the U.S.

Proposition 64, which legalized adult-use marijuana in California, included a provision that allowed criminals to request to have their marijuana-related arrest records expunged. However, in use, the system has proved cumbersome and time-consuming. It also could prove costly, which many convicted criminals could not afford.

With the new system, the state will take the initiative on finding those who are eligible to have their arrest records expunged, rather than leaving it up the individual. Automated software will search thousands of records to find those who might be eligible.

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