San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin was the most hated prosecutor of the right-wing media before even being sworn in as a prosecutor.
After Boudin won the November election, Ann Coulter called him “the son of celebrated police killers.” A Tucker Carlson Fox news report claimed that Boudin invited criminals to “come to San Francisco and pimp and tease your people,” in a segment that also caused five separate piles of human feces in three minutes. Locally, the former head of the Police Officers Association calls him ‘Chelsea’ in the press.
Since there is some confusion about his name, it is pronounced “CHEH-sa boo-DEEN.” But it’s easy to tell why Boudin draws the national ire of conservatives, while he gets praise from Bernie Sanders and co-founders of Black Lives Matter.
Boudin isn’t the kind of prosecutor who promises to be tough on crime, he promises to be tough on the over-politicization of communities of color. His vision for criminal justice reform centers 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 when he was a toddler. Ann Coulter’s “police killer” comment refers to his parents’ role as getaway drivers in a 1981 bank robbery that killed two officers, though Boudin notes that his mother and father were unarmed and neither fired a shot.
SF Evergreen spoke with Boudin about how his government will tackle cannabis policy. His approach is influenced by the amount of time he spends with people behind bars.
“We know that marijuana has been used for decades as a justification for law enforcement to stop, detain, search, arrest, prosecute and incarcerate primarily low-income and people of color,” he said. “While people talk about it in some circles as an ‘entry drug’, it’s also a gateway to really heavy-handed, draconian intervention by law enforcement.
“There is virtually no public safety benefit to be seen for all the lives destroyed and years spent behind bars because of a drug now recognized in California to have medicinal properties.”
As our new prosecutor, Boudin is charged with prosecuting criminal cases in the courts. Those cases no longer relate to marijuana possession since cannabis was legalized in 2018, and his predecessor George Gascón has already removed more than 9,000 cannabis. convictions dating back to 1975.
That mass removal of pot charges planted the seeds for more automated removal of arrest records for nonviolent, victimless crimes. Boudin wants to apply the same cannabis model to clear records for a wider range of past charges.
“We are working on abatement charges in many areas,” Boudin told us, noting that his office could retroactively remove more arrest records from the nonprofit Code for America. “It’s a model that has become popular outside of San Francisco. Code for America has the capacity to do this work with other crime categories and other jurisdictions.”
But Boudin’s reforms won’t bring free marijuana out of San Francisco. Pot smokers can still be prosecuted for flaming on sidewalks or in public with a violation of up to $250.
This irritates some longtime cannabis activists. “We should be keeping pace with tobacco,” said Democratic Club president David Goldman, chairman of local cannabis policy group Brownie Mary. “Wherever tobacco smoking is allowed, cannabis use should be allowed.” (Full disclosure: I am a member of this club.)
In addition, enforcement of these smoking offenses tends to target communities of color and can often escalate when officers are eager to track down additional criminal charges. “If people in Pacific Heights consume cannabis on the street, they most likely get away with it,” Goldman notes. “But if they do it in the Tenderloin or Bayview, they’re at a much higher risk of getting a ticket for the violation.”
For his part, the new prosecutor is not interested in prosecuting anyone for smoking weed on the street.
“Personal use of drugs, especially legal drugs like marijuana, is at the very bottom of our enforcement strategy,” emphasizes Boudin. “We have a serious problem with car break-ins in this city. We still have many sexual assaults that go unreported and go unnoticed and unresolved. We have a backlog of cases involving violence and harm to real people. Those are our priority.”
That doesn’t mean the police won’t make it difficult for you to smoke your weed. Police report to SFPD chief Bill Scott, or to new San Francisco sheriff Paul Miyamoto, not Chesa Boudin. And the police can still take your weed away if you don’t put it away after a warning.
The more serious crime, for many in San Francisco’s cannabis industry, is the ongoing scourge of illegal delivery services operating without licenses. Tell legal delivery services SF Weekly that their counterparts in the illegal market test the results of the legal players.
“The availability of illegal cannabis is still a major factor in the current instability of the legal cannabis market,” said Meaghan Zore, co-founder and chief operating officer of local delivery service Sava. She notes that a 2019 Los Angeles Times report found that the illegal market in California is still twice the size of the legal market. “Delivery is an important part of that.”
San Francisco doesn’t have the rampant illegal brick-and-mortar pharmacies seen in Los Angeles, but SF Evergreen has confirmed illegal delivery services on Weedmaps are still operating in San Francisco.
Boudin acknowledges this. “One of the challenges in moving from a black market to a white market is the gray market in the middle,” he says. “There are still many unregulated trades that undermine traders who adhere to state and local regulations.”
But he does not see police raids as the solution. “It’s primarily a civil regulatory issue, not a criminal one,” Boudin tells us. “We look forward to working with legal industry advocates and other city and state leaders in developing mechanisms to ensure regulatory compliance can be successful in their businesses, and people who choose to circumvent those rules are not allowed to do so. ”
Surprisingly, Zore agrees. “We believe the fastest way to reduce the illicit cannabis market is through changes to the current tax structure,” she says. “The extraordinary tax burden on legitimate operators continues to encourage illegal operators who can offer consumers a much lower price by not paying taxes.”
Chesa Boudin didn’t start this cannabis legalization movement, but he may be the right prosecutor for the two-year-old legal marijuana industry in San Francisco that is still figuring out the small steps.
“I am really lucky that my election has coincided not only with state and local reforms, such as sentencing reform and the legalization of marijuana, but also with a national movement that is bipartisan in recognizing that harsh crime policies and the overcriminalization of drug use and the criminalization of poverty make us all less safe,” he says.