When California voters legalized marijuana use and allowed commercial growing and retail dispensaries in 2016, Proposition 64 also allowed some marijuana-related criminal convictions to be resentenced or dismissed.

Not many people were petitioning for that, and Assembly Bill 1793 was passed in the Legislature to make the state Department of Justice review records in its criminal history information database and identify potentially eligible cases.

In 2019, the department sent each county’s prosecuting agency a list of people and case convictions that were eligible to be reduced or removed under AB 1793, according to state Attorney General Rob Bonta, who wrote the bill when he represented an Alameda County district in the Assembly.

In Santa Barbara County, the District Attorney’s Office submitted 1,728 cases (including 1,578 felonies and 150 misdemeanors) to the county Superior Court.

All of those cases were forwarded to the Department of Justice in November, Superior Court executive officer Darrel Parker told Noozhawk.

“We opposed none of the reductions, so locally everyone eligible would have received this sentencing benefit,” Assistant District Attorney John Savrnoch said.

Generally, misdemeanor possession of marijuana convictions have been reduced to infractions and dismissed, and most possession-for-sale cases were reduced to misdemeanors from felonies, he explained.

“What it means is that someone who had a prior criminal history for a misdemeanor conviction will show no conviction,” Savrnoch said. “Someone with a felony record will now show a misdemeanor conviction.”

Certain possession of cannabis-for-sale cases can still be charged as felony allegations in certain circumstances, including for people with specific prior convictions and people accused of knowingly selling to minors, he noted.

When asked how the Probation Department approaches marijuana use and possession among people on probation, Chief Probation Officer Tanja Heitman said it is handled similarly to alcohol — another legal substance that some people on probation are prohibited from using.

“Terms of probation that prohibit a person from using, possessing or furnishing marijuana are generally only utilized when marijuana played a role in the underlying offense for which a person was convicted, or when its use has risen to the level of abuse and has negatively impacted a person’s well-being,” she told Noozhawk.

“In this respect, marijuana use is treated similarly to alcohol use.”

According to Heitman, a positive test for marijuana use for a person prohibited from using it is technically a probation violation, but it’s not likely that a violation would be alleged for only marijuana use.

“Instead, it is more likely that the individual would be admonished, counseled or referred to a community-based provider for an appropriate intervention, depending on their individual needs,” she said.

People participating in treatment courts may have specific sanctions related to marijuana use, Heitman added.

Thousands of Cases in California

The Los Angeles Times recently reported that there are more than 34,000 potentially eligible cases statewide that have not been processed yet by the courts.

When cases are determined to be eligible for dismissal or resentencing, they are forwarded to the Department of Justice, which references the criminal history database when it responds to background-check requests.

“The delays in clearing drug charges can have dire consequences for those seeking employment, professional licensing, housing, loans, and in other instances in which background checks are required,” Times reporter Kiera Feldman wrote.

In December, Bonta told prosecuting agencies around the state to prioritize their work updating cannabis convictions “so that Californians can promptly obtain the relief they are entitled to under the law.”

Last week, a new bill was introduced that proposed a 2023 deadline for courts to forward local cases to the Department of Justice, and for the department to update its criminal-history database.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.