LOS ANGELES — Yirtuamlak Hailu Derege came to California a decade ago with dreams of making it big in the entertainment business. But shortly after arriving, he was arrested and convicted of selling marijuana, a felony that has made it difficult for him to find any job at all.
But now, with California on the verge of legal recreational marijuana sales starting Jan. 1, Derege and hundreds of thousands of others could have their drug convictions wiped away, thanks to a lesser-known provision in the new state marijuana law.
California is offering a second chance to people convicted of almost any marijuana crimes, from serious felonies to small infractions, with the opportunity to have their criminal records cleared or the charges sharply reduced. State officials hope to reverse decades of marijuana convictions that can make it difficult for people to gain meaningful employment and disproportionately affect low-income minorities.
"We worked to help create a legalized and regulated process for legal marijuana, but we also wanted to make sure we could help — some way, somehow — repair the damages of marijuana prohibition," said Eunisses Hernandez, a policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance. The alliance said there have been 500,000 arrests for marijuana offenses in California in the past 10 years, and it estimates that up to a million people have reviewable convictions on their records.
At least 4,500 people had filed petitions to have their sentences reduced, redesignated or thrown out as of September, according to the California Judicial Council. The highest amount came from Riverside County, where 613 applications were filed. In addition, at least 365 people have applied to have their juvenile marijuana convictions thrown out. Not every county reported data.
The change here is part of a nationwide movement to reduce marijuana charges and atone for harsh penalties during the war on drugs. At least nine states have passed laws expunging or reducing marijuana convictions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Maryland, Oregon and Vermont also now allow convictions for marijuana offenses that are not crimes under current law to be wiped off a criminal record.
The re-designation of marijuana crimes in California went into effect immediately after voters approved the measure legalizing pot. Many viewed it as an offshoot of a 2014 ballot initiative that reduced penalties for certain drug and theft crimes.
Those who want their marijuana convictions lessened must present their cases in court. Prosecutors can decide not to support a reduction should someone have a major felony, such as murder, on their record. Old convictions will be reclassified under the law as it reads now. For example, if someone had been convicted of possessing an ounce or less of marijuana, that conviction would be tossed out because that is now legal in California.
Some district attorney's offices notified the recently convicted and incarcerated that they were eligible to have their records changed and that they potentially could leave prison. Last year, prosecutors in San Diego searched for people convicted of marijuana offenses in the prior three years who would be eligible for reductions. When the measure passed, prosecutors got their petitions before a judge as soon as possible.
"We absolutely didn't want people to be in custody who shouldn't be in custody," said Rachel Solov, chief of the collaborative courts division in the San Diego district attorney's office. She said that as of mid-December, the office has handled nearly 600 reductions.
But advocates said many people who completed their sentences still do not know they could be able to change their criminal records. Hernandez and defense lawyers said that the state has put little effort into outreach and that most people are hearing about the opportunities through word of mouth or social media.
"One of the projects we're working on this year is to notify people that this is an option," said Bruce Margolin, a Los Angeles defense lawyer who specializes in marijuana cases. "It's a viable thing to do, obviously, because people are suffering with these felony convictions in so many aspects of their life."
Omar Figueroa, a defense lawyer in Sebastopol, Calif., who specializes in marijuana law, said the requirement to go to court makes it more difficult for the poor to take advantage.
"That's one of the criticisms, that a lot of people don't have the time or energy or the access to public transportation to get to the courthouse," Figueroa said. "What I see is the people who have more means are the ones who are taking advantage of this, and the people who have more basic struggles in their everyday life, the last thing they're thinking about is cleaning up their criminal history for their old marijuana convictions."
Hernandez and others are hoping people without the means to hire an attorney will come to expungement clinics where paralegals and public defenders review cases.
Derege saw an ad about a Saturday expungement clinic on Facebook just hours before it started. He threw on a hoodie and a backpack stuffed with legal documents and headed out on a 2½ -hour trek by bus, train and foot. He finally arrived at a rehabilitation center in downtown Los Angeles for the clinic, which was organized by Californians for Responsible Marijuana Reform, a committee that campaigned for the initiative.
"I'm hoping they can see what's on my record and I can get cleared," Derege said, "and go back to how things was when I first came to California."
Derege moved to Los Angeles from Missouri in his early 20s. He appeared as an extra in a "Key & Peele" skit called "Bling Benzy & Da Struggle" and has an IMDb credit for the television series "Women Behind Bars."
In 2008, when he was 23, Derege used his medical marijuana card to purchase pot and resell it on the street in Hollywood. He was arrested and charged with a felony for transporting marijuana with intentions to distribute — a rap he thinks was heavy-
"Mind you, I was standing in front of McDonald's selling weed. I wasn't in no car," he said. "I didn't even have a car at the time."
The conviction has barred him from many types of employment, including driving for Uber or Lyft. He works at a warehouse for $10.50 an hour.
"At the end of the day, I made a mistake," he said. "I know I was wrong. . . . But man, come on. It's been 10 years. I'm about to be 33."
His case was referred out, and he discovered something surprising: He is still on probation but didn't know it.
Restaurateur Tim Gee, 50, came to the clinic from Las Vegas, clad in a suit and red tie. He has long worried that his possession-with-intent-to-sell conviction in California from the 1990s would hamper his ability to obtain a liquor license.
Gee said the conviction has prevented him from purchasing firearms and from traveling to Canada for a vacation with his girlfriend. He often works with local elected officials, and he no longer wants to be saddled with a decades-old conviction.
"I just really want to get it cleaned up — to be as straight as possible," Gee said. "It's been hanging over my head. Hopefully, it will be gone."
Zezima reported from Washington.