San Francisco to toss out or reduce thousands of pot convictions

SAN FRANCISCO -- San Francisco's district attorney said Wednesday that city prosecutors will toss out or reduce thousands of criminal convictions for marijuana dating back decades, a move allowed under the 2016 state ballot measure legalizing recreational sales of pot. District Attorney George Gascon said his office will dismiss nearly 3,000 misdemeanor cases and review nearly 5,000 felony cases for possible action.

Proposition 64 legalized the recreational use of marijuana. It also allowed people convicted of marijuana charges to petition courts to toss out the cases or reduce penalties. Gascon said that process can be time-consuming and costly, so prosecutors in the district attorney's office plan to review and wipe out eligible cases en masse. Some people with convictions may not know they are eligible, Gascon said.

"A misdemeanor or felony conviction can have significant implications for employment, housing, and other benefits," Gascon said. He said prosecutors will review cases from 1975 through passage of Proposition 64 in November 2016.

He said 23 petitions for dismissal or reduction have been filed in San Francisco since passage of Proposition 64. 

As of September, around 5,000 people had applied for a change to their records, according to state data. That's a fraction of the people that experts estimate are eligible.

Laura Thomas, deputy state director for the pro-marijuana organization Drug Policy Alliance, estimated more than 100,000 people are eligible to have their records changed.

Assemblyman Rob Bonta, a Democrat from Oakland, introduced legislation on Jan. 9 that would require county courts to automatically expunge eligible records.

Recreational marijuana became legal in California last year, and on Jan. 1 it became legal for licensed dispensaries to sell it to non-medical patients.

The U.S. Justice Department announced earlier this year that it's halting an Obama-era policy to take a hands-off approach toward states that have legalized marijuana. Pot is still illegal under federal law. 

The federal move could lead to increased prosecutions of marijuana sellers and growers, although it's unclear how aggressive federal attorneys will be.

The move also sparked swift reaction from officials in some states, including Washington, where recreational marijuana has been legal for five years, CBS News' Mireya Villarreal reported in January. 

"We will not be bullied by an administration that seems obsessed with dismantling things that are actually working," said Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan.

In California, customers have been streaming into pot shops since recreational marijuana became legal on New Year's Day. Zen Healing's manager, Amy Pagel, said in early January business had doubled, and she believes that could make her store a target for the feds.  

"It's always the possibility in your mind that they'll go after the successful one first to make an example," Pagel said.

But legal analysts tell CBS News that it will be difficult for federal prosecutors to get cases tried and convicted in states that don't want legal marijuana snuffed out.