LOS ANGELES - Yirtuamlak Hailu Derege came to California a decade ago with dreams of making it big in the entertainment business. But shortly after arriving, he was arrested and convicted of selling marijuana, a felony that has made it difficult for him to find any job at all.
But now, with California on the verge of legal recreational marijuana sales starting Jan. 1, Derege and hundreds of thousands of others could have their drug 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 crimes, from serious felonies to small infractions, with the opportunity to have their criminal records cleared or the 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 arrests for marijuana offenses in California in the past 10 years, and it estimates that up to a million people have reviewable convictions on their records.
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 highest amount came from Riverside County, where 613 applications were filed. Additionally, at least 365 people have applied to have their juvenile marijuana convictions thrown out. Not every county reported data.
The change here is part of a nationwide movement to reduce marijuana charges and atone 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.
The re-designation of marijuana crimes in California went into effect immediately after voters approved the measure legalizing pot. Many viewed it as an offshoot of a 2014 ballot initiative that reduced penalties for certain drug and theft crimes.
Those who want their marijuana convictions lessened must present their cases in court. Prosecutors can decide not to support a reduction should someone have a major felony, such as murder, on their record. Old convictions will be reclassified under the law as it reads now. As an example, if someone had been convicted of possession an ounce or less of marijuana, that conviction would be completely tossed out because that is now legal in California.
Some district attorneys' offices notified the recently convicted and incarcerated that they were eligible to have their records reduced and that they potentially could leave prison. Last year, prosecutors in San Diego searched for people convicted of marijuana offenses in the prior three years who would be eligible for reductions. When the measure passed, prosecutors got their petitions before a judge as soon as possible.
"We absolutely didn't want people to be in custody who shouldn't be in custody," said Rachel Solov, chief of the collaborative courts division in the San Diego district attorney's office. She said that as of mid-December, the office has handled nearly 600 reductions.