OAKLAND, Calif. - Vikash Singh is a college-educated, former teacher who was arrested and convicted for growing medical marijuana in Los Angeles County in 2014.
Even though he said he had the proper documentation to do so, the sheriff's deputies who arrested him, and the prosecutors who charged him with felony cultivation, didn't seem to care that his paperwork was in order.
He lost his $2.5-million marijuana business and warehouse. Ten employees lost their jobs. More than $500,000 in assets were seized. He filed for bankruptcy. And because of his felony conviction, he couldn't find work for a long time.
And at 35 years old, Singh had no choice but to leave Southern California and move back in with his parents in the San Mateo home where he was raised.
"It was pretty embarrassing," he said, adding that the criminal conviction forced him to come clean with his parents about his employment.
"It turned my life upside down," Singh told KTVU this week. "It was debilitating. I was a felon on probation. I went to Oracle and Dropbox looking for a job. But once I got to human resources, I got rejected."
Singh's lawyer got his case transferred to Alameda County, where his felony was knocked down to a misdemeanor about six months ago. He ended up finding a job as director of client relations at the Oakland-based Green Rush Consulting, which helps clients obtain marijuana licenses.
It took four years, but his life is finally back on track.
Singh is just one of the estimated one million people who were prosecuted in California and are now eligible under Prop. 64 to have their convictions reduced or wiped away, according to data compiled by the Oakland-based Drug Policy Alliance.
Californians approved the “Adult Use of Marijuana Act,” or Prop. 64, in November 2016. The proposition legalized the sale of recreational marijuana, and also had provisions to allow people to retroactively clear or reduce their prior marijuana convictions.
In the Bay Area, led by San Francisco's District Attorney on Jan. 31, individual prosecutors promised to review these cases and clear thousands of criminal cannabis records proactively -- without making people petition the court on their own, which can often be costly and time-consuming. Three months later, a 2 Investigates review of the major Bay Area District Attorney’s offices shows that they have only made a small dent in the number of cases they vowed to dismiss. As of this week, just ahead of the national holiday of 4/20, 2 Investigates found that the district attorneys have dismissed or reduced between four to 10 percent of the cannabis caseloads on their docket.
The reason, prosecutors say, isn’t because they don’t support the new marijuana laws. Rather, it's a lack of the money and resources needed to move the cases along.
“I originally wasn’t doing this,” San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said. “But not for philosophical reasons. It’s because it takes money.”
But seeing that other counties were trying to address this issue and wipe the slate clean for people convicted of marijuana charges, San Mateo County Supervisor Warren Slocum approached Wagstaffe about three weeks ago saying that he wanted to try this approach, too. How much would it cost? So now, Wagstaffe said his office is researching how much money his office needs and working to get such a program off the ground.
In Santa Clara County, the DA’s Office decided to quietly review in-custody marijuana cases and either dismiss them or reduce felonies to misdemeanors right after Prop. 64 passed two years ago.
Deputy District Attorney Patrick Vanier, head of the narcotics team, said his prosecutors decided to look at active cases first: People who were currently being prosecuted, in prison or on probation for felony marijuana convictions. Since November 2016, Vanier said he’s submitted 500 cases for dismissal or reduction out of a possible 7,000 or more that date back to the 1990s. Each review takes about 20 minutes, he said. And the cases don't just involve possessing a plant or too. In Santa Clara County, Vanier said there are plenty of felony cases involving major marijuana cultivation farms that need to be revisited and amended properly.
In January of this year, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon took the idea of dismissing active cases a stepfurther. He became the first prosecutor in the state to look back to 1975 and proactively review marijuana cases for dismissal without having people have to petition the courts to do so.
Prosecutors in San Diego, Alameda, Sonoma and Yolo counties soon followed suit with promises of proactively wiping away or reducing criminal records; many looking to San Francisco to guide them with their efforts. And now, a bill, AB1793, is working through the Legislature that would mandate retroactively clearing or reducing marijuana convictions in California, codifying what many district attorneys are doing voluntarily on their own.
“San Francisco is once again taking the lead to undo the damage that this country’s disastrous, failed drug war has had on our nation and on communities of color in particular,” Gascon said at the time. “A criminal conviction can be a barrier to employment, housing and other benefits, so instead of waiting for the community to take action, we’re taking action for the community.”
To date, Gascon’s office has submitted 800 cases for dismissal or reduction out of nearly 8,000 marijuana convictions in the court’s database from 1975 to 2016. That's a 10 percent reduction in three months. Spokesman Alex Bastian told KTVU that his office is trying to move as “expeditiously” as possible, but prosecutors also have to queue up to put these requests into the already-busy criminal court calendars.
“It just takes time,” Bastian said. Court clerks have been processing 25 cases a week. But Bastian said that as of now, the clerks will be processing 100 a week. Gascon had originally said it might take six months to a year to clear the system of all these cases.
Even the process is slow-going, Rodney Holcombe, a staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance, said he and his colleagues are “super excited” about the DAs are doing.
“When you have a marijuana conviction, you can’t participate in society in a meaningful way,” he said. “And across country, black and Latinos arrested disproportionately for marijuana crimes. Certain communities have been being targeted. And it’s been harmful and hard to overcome."
For Singh, overcoming his hardships took a while and he realizes how lucky he is to have had enough means to fight his conviction, and clean up his record. He realizes, though, that many aren't as fortunate as him. And he wishes that prosecutors would move more aggressively to help others in his former situation.
"I'd probably be on Skid Row," he said, had he not had welcoming parents, an education and some extra money from his marijuana business to hire attorneys. "I'd probably be homeless. I'd probably be living out of a car, struggling. Your whole world comes crashing down and suddenly you're a criminal overnight."
ACTUAL MARIJUANA DISMISSALS TO DATE VS. PROMISES MADE BY PROSECUTORS
- San Francisco District Attorney: More than 800 cases have been submitted to the court for dismissal or reduction out of nearly 8,000 possible felony and misdemeanor marijuana charges stemming back to 1975. The DA promised to clear cases proactively within the year.
- Alameda County District Attorney: More than 700 cases out of 5,900 possible charges have been submitted for dismissal dating back to 1974. Spokeswoman Teresa Drenick says her office receives about 10 petitions a week, which come in through an email designed for this purpose. The DA promised to clear cases proactively, but after two other phases occur.
- Contra Costa County: Infancy stages in creating a proactive marijuana dismissal program. There are potentially thousands of cases to review. The DA has not promised to clear cases proactively.
- Sonoma County District Attorney: Has submitted 121 cases to be dismissed or reduced out of an estimated 3,000 marijuana charges stemming back to 1979. The DA promised to clear cases proactively, once more recent cases and petitioners' cases are cleared. To petition the DA, email Prop64@sonoma-county.org.
- Santa Clara County District Attorney: Submitted 500 active cases to be dismissed or reduced out of more than 7,000 cases stemming back to the 1990s. Focused on active prosecutions, probations and those serving sentences. To petition the DA, email Prop64discovery@dao.sccgov.org.
- San Mateo County District Attorney: Initially, did not have a program to proactively review marijuana cases. Three weeks ago, Board of Supervisor Warren Slocum said there was funding to start a program. Idea in its infancy stage. To date, prosecutors have dismissed or reduced 263 cases. The total number is unknown because of their computer software.
Source: KTVU reporting