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When Californians voted to legalize marijuana last year, they also voted to let people petition courts to reduce or hide convictions for past marijuana crimes. State residents can now petition courts to change some felonies to misdemeanors, change some misdemeanors to infractions, and wipe away convictions for possessing or growing small amounts of the drug.
“We call it reparative justice: repairing the harms caused by the war on drugs,” says Eunisses Hernandez of the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group that helped write the California ballot initiative.
Colorado, Maryland, New Hampshire and Oregon also have made it easier for people convicted of some crimes of marijuana possession, cultivation or manufacture to get their records sealed or expunged, which generally means removing convictions from public databases. Massachusetts lawmakers are considering a criminal justice bill that would, among other changes, allow people to expunge any conviction that’s no longer a crime, such as marijuana possession.
Yet allowing people to seal their criminal records or reclassify convictions is not the rule in states that have legalized or decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. Bills that would remove or reduce convictions on people’s records are often opposed by lawmakers and prosecutors who argue that people who knowingly violated prior laws shouldn’t be let off the hook just because the law changed.
California has done more than any other state to require judges to excuse residents’ past marijuana crimes. That’s because the state took the issue to voters, Hernandez said. “Through the Legislature, we would not have gotten this.”
In states that have legalized marijuana, some lawmakers say reducing old marijuana-related convictions is a no-brainer. “Since this is now the law of Nevada, it’s important that we allow folks who have made these mistakes in the past to have their records sealed up,” said Nevada Assemblyman William McCurdy, a Democrat who proposed a bill on the issue this year.
“To the extent that there are individuals suffering under criminal records for conduct now legal in Nevada, those cases are best handled on a case-by-case basis,” Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, wrote in his veto statement. He added that given other reforms to the sealing and expungement process in Nevada, a marijuana-specific law wasn’t necessary.
Nearly half a million people were arrested for marijuana crimes in California over the past decade, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. But California courts have received just 1,506 applications for reclassifying past marijuana-related crimes since state residents gained the option to do so last year.
The Drug Policy Alliance also says that more than 78,000 convictions could be set aside in Oregon. But courts received just 388 requests for set-asides in cases that involved a marijuana charge in 2015, 453 in 2016, and 365 so far this year, according to the Oregon Judicial Department.
It could be that many people just don’t know they can get their records sealed. Marijuana industry and legal defense groups have hosted free events in both states to help people file the right paperwork — though in both states, lawyers say filing a petition is straightforward enough to handle without an attorney.
Still, the California ballot initiative’s emphasis on criminal justice reform and releasing people from the burden of past crimes may be the new normal moving forward. The initiative has become “the gold standard,” said Art Way, director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s Colorado office. He said that activists in New Mexico, New Jersey and New York are all lobbying for racial justice and, to some extent, retroactive relief for marijuana crimes.
Heroin availability in the US — and overdose deaths related to drug — has skyrocketed over the past several years. Eleven of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s 21 field divisions in the US rated it has the number-one drug threat in 2016. And while the DEA says heroin from Mexico, South America, Southwest Asia, and Southeast Asia is all available in the US, the agency’s testing and research indicate that the US’s southern neighbor is the dominant source.
“Mexico and, to a lesser extent, Colombia dominate the US heroin market because of their proximity, established transportation and distribution infrastructure, and ability to satisfy heroin demand in the United States,” the DEA notes in its 2017 National Drug Threat Assessment.
Mexican cartels’ shift to producing heroin — as well as synthetic drugs like fentanyl — has been driven in part by loosening marijuana laws in the US, and the Sinaloa cartel appears to be the main player in a lucrative market.
National Drug Threat Survey respondents reporting high heroin availability from 2010 to 2011 and 2013 to 2017. 2017 DEA NDTA
The Sinaloa cartel dominates much of Mexico’s Pacific coast, which includes main opium-cultivation areas in Guerrero and Sinaloa, which is part of country’s Golden Triangle. (The CJNG is also active in that area.)
For Mexico’s cartels, “the big moneymaker right now, given the opioid epidemic, is heroin, and the reason that it’s heroin is that people who have become addicted to prescription opioids find it a lot cheaper to purchase heroin,” Vigil told Business Insider.
Mexican cartels often have improvised labs — “I call them ‘kitchen labs,’ because they use nothing more than pots and pans that you would find in any kitchen,” Vigil said — located near growing areas. The cartel chemists who run those labs don’t have formal training, but they’re mentored by other chemists and know how to convert opium to morphine and heroin, Vigil added.
“Before I cooked some 40 kilos a year,” he said. “But now I’m cooking like some 30 kilos a month,” making both black-tar and white-powder heroin, a sign Mexican producers are drawing on Colombian methods.
Seizures of fentanyl, which is more profitable than heroin, in the city this year are 10 times what they were last year, and DEA intelligence indicates that 80% of the drugs seized are linked to the Sinaloa cartel.
While the spread of heroin and opioid abuse in the US has had devastating consequences for many communities, for the traffickers, it is simply a matter of business.
Americans “buy [drugs], we sell,” the Sinaloa operative told Rio Doce. “We don’t force any gringo who consumes heroin or marijuana,” he added. “They do it because they want to, and if one doesn’t sell it to them, somebody else is going to do it.”
Mexico’s cartels, Vigil said, are “very much like any corporation. They judge the market demand, and they shift accordingly, and I would have to say the cartels shift much more efficiently and quickly than any major corporation, because they don’t have to deal the bureaucracy.”