Cannabis Justice Program Helps People Turn Over a New Leaf

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Cannabis Justice Program Helps People Turn Over a New Leaf

Laura Ernde

A Contra Costa County woman now has a clear path to public housing, thanks to the work of a fledgling program at the Justice & Diversity Center (JDC) of the Bar Association of San Francisco (BASF).

The Cannabis Justice Program, funded by marijuana tax revenue distributed by the California Community Reinvestment Grant Program, helps people who have marijuana-related convictions in their past get into affordable and stable housing. The program can help people get previous convictions expunged from their records and assist them through the housing application process.

“It’s designed to correct the wrongs inflicted on communities of color,” said Gloria Chun, director and managing attorney of pro bono legal services programs at the Justice & Diversity Center. “It helps them get more established.”

Chun and Supervising Attorney Greg Gomes recently celebrated the program’s first win on behalf of a client who was initially denied housing by the Housing Authority of Contra Costa County.

The African American woman, who was eligible for the Cannabis Justice program due to a previously expunged marijuana conviction, was turned down for housing because of a misdemeanor conviction from 2016 related to child endangerment, for which she received probation.

Once a housing application is denied, there are often limited grounds on which an applicant can challenge the denial. In many cases, overturning a decision is essentially a matter of persuading the housing provider that the applicant deserves a second chance. For that reason, it can be a big help to have an advocate, Gomes said.

“[The program] is designed to correct the wrongs inflicted on communities of color.” —Gloria Chun

JDC partnered with another agency, Disability Rights California, to make the woman’s case at a virtual hearing on Sept. 29, 2020. The advocates set out to appeal to the housing authority’s sense of fairness, as well as their stated policies to consider mitigating circumstances such as:

  • The seriousness of the case, especially with respect to how it would affect other residents
  • The length of time since the violation occurred, the family’s recent history, and the likelihood of favorable conduct in the future
  • The effects that denial of admission may have on other members of the family who were not involved in the action or failure

“We were able to show the conviction had to do with the conduct of a third party. She was basically just present as a bystander,” Gomes said. In addition, years had passed since the incident in question and since that time the woman continued to successfully raise her daughter, who is now in college.

The housing authority agreed to reopen her application, which is still pending. “We removed the barrier that was caused by her conviction,” Gomes said.

On the heels of the successful case, Gomes and Chun are casting a wide net to help more people with similar circumstances.

As the state grant program points out, the “War on Drugs” disproportionately impacted communities of color by targeting Black and Latino residents for arrest at much higher rates than whites even though there’s little racial disparity in the rate at which people use and sell marijuana.

Even San Francisco, which had one of the lowest arrest rates statewide for misdemeanor marijuana violations before legalization, saw heavy marijuana arrest levels among its Black youth, according to a 2010 study by the Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice.

Chun said it’s been difficult to get referrals for Cannabis Justice cases. The program only got up and running shortly before the pandemic shut down most in-person advocacy efforts. People with qualifying marijuana convictions on their records may not even know that this help is available. The Adult Use of Marijuana Act, approved by voters in 2016 as Proposition 64, outlines the nonviolent marijuana-related convictions that qualify.

The Contra Costa County woman was referred to JDC by the Oakland nonprofit Root and Rebound, which serves families and communities harmed by mass incarceration.

Gomes has been reaching out to other Bay Area organizations that help formerly incarcerated people reenter society successfully. The City and County of San Francisco’s Adult Probation Department and the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, known for its progressive policies, are among the agencies he’s turning to make connections with other nonprofits.

Chun said the goal is to have enough clients to bring in pro bono attorneys to assist. She’s also considering ways to make the program accessible to even more would-be tenants with marijuana convictions who have been denied housing.

“Especially in the beginning we’re looking to be as inclusive as possible,” Chun said.

Laura Ernde is a San Francisco-based writer and communications consultant. She has covered legal affairs for more than a decade, as a journalist and former editor of the California Bar Journal.