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Californians are already having their marijuana charges downgraded

by Jacob Margolis | Take Two®

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An employee holds one of several strains of medical marijuana sold at a dispensary in downtown Los Angeles on Monday afternoon, Feb. 29, 2016. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

When Proposition 64 passed last week, quite a few things changed.

For instance, it's now legal to carry up to an ounce of marijuana, and you can now grow up to six plants on your premises.

But some of the biggest changes have to do with how marijuana-related crimes will be prosecuted going forward. And those changes are already playing out in courts across Los Angeles.

"I was in court today [Nov. 10] where a guy had a possession for sale of 35 pounds," said Bruce Margolin, an attorney who specializes in cannabis-related issues. "They wanted to give him a year in jail and three years felony probation. Today, he walked out with a misdemeanor 60 days, with half time."

Because of changes to the law, some crimes which were felonies are now considered misdemeanors, and some misdemeanors can be wiped from records completely. And these changes don't just apply to current and future cases, but retroactively as well, meaning that anyone who's been charged with a pot-related crime has a chance to have their record amended.

"People with possession for sale, possession with the intent to sell, transportation or giving away more than an ounce, or sale of cannabis, would normally face prison time from three to four years. However, now it's been reduced to six months in jail, maximum, and a $500 fine, or both," said Margolin.

Attorneys, including Margolin, have been inundated with calls from clients trying to amend their records.

Attorney Eric Shevin said that over the past week he's received "hundreds, literally hundreds of calls."

He too has found himself in court since the law passed, adjusting to the new reality: "It's very different than what we've been experiencing, you know, for the last 50 years."

Shevin said that he was in court this week with a client who was booked on a marijuana-related charge back in August, before the law changed.

"They found the 50 pounds [of marijuana]. He was arrested, taken to jail, bailed out on $100,000. The case was filed as a felony transportation of cannabis case," he said. But since the case was pushed until after the law was changed, it was reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor.

The Drug Policy Alliance, which helped draft Prop 64, has estimated that nearly 11,000 people are arrested in California each year for marijuana-related crimes. The hope among advocates was that the measure would have substantial impact on the lives of people charged with such crimes. And early signs suggest that's what's happening.

Things have already changed for people like Ingrid Archie, a mother of two from Los Angeles, who was arrested in 2004 with more than 50 grams of marijuana separated into small baggies. She was charged with, and pleaded guilty to, the felony charge of possession with intent to sell.

"I was living, you know, in South Los Angeles at the time. And I had let a friend live with me. Basically, the police was looking for them. And they came into my house and searched my house looking for them. And they found the marijuana," she said. "And so I went to jail because I was in the house and I was already on probation for a prior charge."

With a drug-related felony on her record, Archie said that she had difficulty getting housing assistance. And jobs were largely out of the question.

"I applied everywhere. And all I got was 'No, no, no' for years, so I gave up," she said.

On the night that Prop 64 passed, Archie filed a petition to have the charge lessened to a misdemeanor — a move that she hopes will pay off going forward.

But there could be hurdles ahead. Several attorneys that spoke with Take Two said the courts are having trouble adjusting.

"They say, 'Duh.' They don't know what's going on. It's like deer with headlights on them," said Margolin.

Shevin said on some cases that now have to be retroactively reduced to misdemeanors, there has been "both resistance from the prosecution and the court, and a lack of understanding as to that the law actually allows that, and in fact requires that, to be done."

The Superior Court so far hasn't responded to a request for comment. The L.A. County District Attorney's office declined to comment but provided a copy of guidelines that its employees were to follow while dealing with the legal changes.

There are a few charges that remain felonies — selling to minors, for instance, as well as butane extraction. And there are a few situations where felonies might not be changed into misdemeanors — if someone is a sex offender, for instance, or has a super strike, or has committed a certain crime three times.

For a clear breakdown of what's eligible to be reduced under the current law, check out this chart put together by marijuana activists.

Correction: An earlier version of this story's headline misstated how Prop 64 has affected people who have already been convicted of marijuana-related offenses. KPCC regrets the error.

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