Boudin and Green
San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin was right-wing media’s most hated district attorney before he was even sworn in as district attorney.
After Boudin won the November election, Ann Coulter called him “the son of celebrated cop-killers.” A Tucker Carlson Fox News report claimed Boudin was inviting criminals to “come to San Francisco and pimp and pander your people,” in a segment that also made sure to show five separate piles of human feces in three minutes. Locally, the former head of the Police Officers Association refers to him in the press as “Chelsea.”
Since there is some confusion about his name, it is pronounced “CHEH-sa boo-DEEN.” But it’s easy to say why Boudin draws the national ire of conservatives, while drawing praise from Bernie Sanders and co-founders of Black Lives Matter.
Boudin is not the kind of district attorney who promises to get tough on crime, he promises to get tough on the overpolicing of communities of color. His visions for criminal justice reform center on reducing incarceration for non-violent crimes, a phenomenon Boudin has lived with since he was 14 months old.
His parents were sent to prison while he was still a toddler. Ann Coulter’s “cop-killers” remark refers to his parents’ role as getaway drivers in a 1981 bank robbery that killed two officers, though Boudin notes that his mom and dad were not armed and neither of them fired a shot.
SF Evergreen spoke to Boudin about how his administration will approach cannabis policy. His approach is influenced by the amount of time he’s spent with people behind bars.
“We know that marijuana, for decades, has been used as a justification for law enforcement to stop, detain, search, arrest, prosecute, and jail primarily low-income and people of color,” he tells us. “As much as people talk about it in some circles as a ‘gateway drug,’ it’s also been a gateway to really heavy-handed, draconian intervention by law enforcement.
“There’s virtually no public safety benefit to show for all the lives that have been destroyed and the years that have been spent behind bars because of a drug that in California is now recognized as having medicinal properties.”
As our new district attorney, Boudin is tasked with prosecuting criminal cases in the courts. Those cases no longer involve marijuana possession since pot was legalized in 2018, and his predecessor George Gascón already removed more than 9,000 cannabis convictions going back to 1975.
That mass expungement of pot charges planted the seeds for more automated removal of arrest records for nonviolent, victimless crimes. Boudin wants to apply that same cannabis model to expunge records for a broader range of past charges.
“We are working on reduction charges in a lot of areas,” Boudin told us, noting his office might remove more arrest records retroactively with technology from the nonprofit Code for America. “It’s a model that has become popular beyond just San Francisco. Code for America has the capacity to do this work with other categories of crimes and other jurisdictions.”
But Boudin’s reforms do not create a San Francisco marijuana free-for-all. Pot smokers can still be prosecuted for blazing up on sidewalks or in public with an infraction charge of up to $250.
This rankles some longtime cannabis activists. “We should have parity with tobacco,” says the president of local cannabis policy group Brownie Mary Democratic Club president David Goldman. “Wherever tobacco smoking is allowed, cannabis consumption should be allowed.” (Full disclosure: I am a member of this club.)
Moreover, enforcement of these smoking infractions tends to target communities of color, and can often escalate when officers are eager to sniff out additional prosecutable charges. “If people are consuming cannabis in Pacific Heights on the street, most likely they’ll completely get away with it,” Goldman observes. “But if they do it in the Tenderloin or Bayview, they run a much bigger risk of getting a ticket for the infraction.”
For his part, the new district attorney is not interested in prosecuting anyone for smoking pot on the street.
“Personal use of drugs, especially legal drugs like marijuana, is at the very bottom of our enforcement strategy,” Boudin insists. “We have a serious problem in this city with auto burglaries. We still have lots of sexual assaults that go unreported and undetected and unsolved. We have a backlog of cases involving acts of violence and harm to actual human beings. Those are our priority.”
That doesn’t mean the police won’t give you a hard time for smoking your weed. The police report to SFPD chief Bill Scott, or to new San Francisco county sheriff Paul Miyamoto, not to Chesa Boudin. And the cops can still take away your weed if you don’t put it away after a warning.
The more serious crime, to many in the San Francisco cannabis industry, is the ongoing scourge of illegal delivery services operating without permits. Legal delivery services tell SF Weekly that their illicit market counterparts are hammering the legal players’ bottom line.
“The availability of illicit cannabis is still a major factor in the current instability of the legal cannabis market,” says Meaghan Zore, co-founder and chief operating officer of the local delivery service Sava. She notes that a 2019 Los Angeles Times report found the illegal market in California is still twice the size of the legal market. “Delivery is a major part of that.”
San Francisco does not have the rampant illegal brick-and-mortar dispensaries seen in Los Angeles, but SF Evergreen has confirmed there are still illegal delivery services on Weedmaps operating in San Francisco.
Boudin acknowledges this. “One of the challenges to transitioning from a black market to a white market is the grey market in the middle,” he says. “There are still a lot of unregulated transactions that undermine the merchants who are complying with the state and local regulations.”
But he doesn’t see police raids as the solution. “It’s primarily a civil regulatory problem, and not a criminal problem,” Boudin tells us. “We look forward to working with the legal industry advocates and other city and state leaders in developing mechanisms to ensure that folks who comply with regulations can succeed in their businesses, and that folks who choose to skirt those regulations are not allowed to do so.”
Surprisingly, Zore agrees. “We believe the quickest way to diminish the illicit cannabis market is through changes in the current tax structure,” she says. “The extraordinary tax burden placed on legal operators continues to incentivize illicit operators who are able to offer a much lower price point to the consumer by not paying any taxes.”
Chesa Boudin did not start this cannabis legalization movement, but he might be the right district attorney for San Francisco’s two-year-old legal marijuana industry that’s still figuring out the baby steps.
“I feel really lucky my election coincides with not just state and local reforms, like sentencing reform and marijuana legalization, but also with a national movement that is bipartisan in recognizing that tough on crime policies and overcriminalization of drug consumption and criminalization of poverty actually make all of us less safe,” he says.