San Francisco Uses Tech To Expunge Thousands of Unfair Marijuana Convictions

As states on both coasts pivot from the war on drugs to legalized marijuana, an increasing number of cities are choosing to clear past marijuana convictions. The latest — and the biggest to date — is San Francisco, which teamed up with Code for America to identify and expunge 9,362 marijuana convictions dating back to 1975.

The city announced plans for this mass purge of marijuana convictions in early 2018, almost immediately after the law legalizing recreational marijuana in California went into effect. Getting past convictions expunged was already an option, but only 23 people had taken advantage of the program by February of last year. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón told NPR at that time that the low number was probably because the process was complicated, time-consuming, and expensive. "You have to hire an attorney. You have to petition the court. You have to come for a hearing," Gascón said. "It's a very expensive and very cumbersome process. And the reality is that the majority of the people that were punished and were the ones that suffered in this war on marijuana, war on drugs nationally, were people that can ill afford to pay an attorney.”

President Nixon officially declared a “war on drugs” in 1971, but the United States has used drug laws to specifically target people of color since the anti-opium laws of the late 1800s. The first law — which went into effect in 1875 and, ironically, was in San Francisco — criminalized the drug activity of some Chinese immigrants. In addition to a federal anti-opium law in 1909, the early 20th century saw an anti-cocaine statute targeting Black people and marijuana laws targeting Mexican immigrants. Under the Nixon administration in the 1970s, federal drug control agencies increased in size and scope, while mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants were introduced. In a 1994 interview that wasn’t published until 2016, Nixon Domestic Policy Chief John Ehrlichman told Harper’s Magazine that Nixon’s war on drugs was explicitly created to target the anti-establishment left and people of color.

“You want to know what this was really all about?” Ehrlichman said. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Ehrlichman’s blunt statement took what were previously theories about the war on drugs from conspiracy to historical fact: it was launched to imprison Black people. San Francisco’s move to proactively expunge marijuana convictions without any necessary action by the convicted person, then, can be seen as a move to rectify those racial injustices.

There’s no way to deny the racial disparity in drug convictions in San Francisco. NPR reports that in 2010 and 2011, Black people made up only 6 percent of the population of San Francisco, but were about half of the city’s marijuana arrests. Nationwide, Black people were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than White people during the same period, according to a report by the ACLU. But that may all be changing, with states like California leading the way.

“[W]hat we're saying is, the public in California has determined that [marijuana possession] should not be a crime,” Gascón said. “Then let's go back and repair some of the harm.”

And how appropriate that the city known for being the technology hub of the world chose technology to repair some of that harm. Code for America is a not-for-profit organization that works to integrate technology into government services to help the government better serve the public. When San Francisco city officials tried finding the cases by hand, they were only able to identify about 1,200. But with the Code for America algorithm, 8,000 more people will have their records expunged and rights restored by the end of the year.

Considering the success of this first run the Code for America program is likely to be used in other California localities looking to expunge marijuana convictions. And they’re all going to have to — a state law passed in November 2018 requires the California Department of Justice to review and identify past marijuana convictions that qualify for expungement. The bill sets a goal of July 2020 for getting all of the convictions cleared. It’s an admirable — if lofty — task, but one that’s been a long time coming. Some might even say almost 145 years coming.

About the Author

Emma McGowan is a veteran blogger, SFSI-endorsed sex educator, and Bustle's sex advice columnist at Sex IDK. Her work has appeared in Bustle,, Unbound, Mashable, Broadly, The Daily Dot's The Kernel, Mic, Bedsider, and The Bold Italic.