Nearly two decades ago, on a high desert road in California, Sara Rodriguez was pulled over and arrested with 10 small packets of cannabis in her car. She was convicted of a felony, possession of the drug for sale, and spent more than two years in prison. Later, Rodriguez, 39, became the first in her family to go to college, and graduated from UCLA with a master’s degree in social welfare. Rodriguez still has a felony on her record — a potential black mark for employers and the state social work licensing board. When California voters legalized cannabis for recreational use in 2016, one promise was the creation of a legal pathway for clearing many past marijuana-related convictions or reducing them to a lesser charge.
Despite a 2018 law intended to speed up and automate the process, tens of thousands of Californians like Rodriguez are still stuck with felonies, misdemeanors and other convictions on their records, a Los Angeles Times investigation found. At least 34,000 marijuana records have not been fully processed by the courts. The number was more than twice that in August, before the newspaper began questioning the slow processing times. Delays in clearing drug charges can have dire consequences for those seeking employment, professional licensing, housing, loans and in other instances in which background checks are required. The courts have emerged as the primary bottleneck in a process that has entangled the state Department of Justice and prosecutors’ offices in 58 counties. Although a number of counties have moved aggressively to clear records, many others have moved at a snail’s pace. Some courts — including in Riverside and San Bernardino, where Rodriguez was convicted — haven’t fully processed a single case. Rodriguez’s felony conviction was one of about 5,400 cannabis cases that were essentially gathering dust in San Bernardino. Court officials blamed a combination of factors for delays, including COVID-19, staffing shortages, outdated case management systems, old records that require manual review and technical issues