2020's Big Changes for Colorado Marijuana

An Eagle County marijuana farm during the early growing season.
Jake Holschuh
An Eagle County marijuana farm during the early growing season.
Colorado's relationship with cannabis continues to evolve, with several big changes coming for marijuana businesses, users and former offenders in this year and next.

After opening the door for pot delivery and hospitality businesses in 2019, Colorado legislators were expected to follow up this year with potential laws addressing diversity within the industry and expunging former low-level marijuana offenders. Despite a roadblock in COVID-19, lawmakers were able to pass a bill addressing both, as well as measures addressing marijuana business banking, employee requirements and hemp farming. Find out more about what's ahead below.

Mass marijuana pardons
Originally drafted to define social equity applicants in the marijuana industry, House Bill 1424 also gives Governor Jared Polis the power to grant pardons to people charged with possession of two ounces of marijuana or less in Colorado before the state legalized the plant in November 2012. If Polis signs the bill as expected, there are still a lot of details to iron out by his administration and the state attorney general, such as the fees associated with filing all of those pardons and how the pardons would lead to record expungement.

Although Polis can issue the pardons on a mass level, former offenders would still have to seek their own record clearings, because there is currently no state database that can list marijuana possession crimes. However, the process is expected to be relatively cheap and streamlined as compared to efforts in other states, such as Nevada and California, and wouldn't require approval from district attorneys.

Social equity marijuana businesses are now defined
The last-minute amendment to HB 1424 allowing marijuana pardons might've gotten the headline, but it wouldn't have been successful without a bill latch on to. That bill, introduced by State Representative James Coleman, creates an applicant definition for the state's marijuana business accelerator licenses and future social equity programs: An applicant must be a Colorado resident who has been arrested for or convicted of a marijuana offense, was subject to civil asset forfeiture related to a marijuana investigation, or has lived in a designated zone of low economic opportunity or high crime; anyone with a family member who has been subject to marijuana-related offenses would also be eligible, as would applicants living under an as-yet-to-be-determined level of household income.

State banks and credit unions can loan money to marijuana businesses more easily
Because of the plant's federal prohibition, most banks and financial institutions won't work with marijuana businesses out of fear of federal drug or trafficking charges. State lawmakers and regulators have announced efforts to ease banking and loan obstacles for the marijuana industry within Colorado through various initiatives. House Bill 1217, introduced by representatives Matt Gray and Hugh McKean, broadens the scope of what Colorado financial institutions can do with pot businesses, stating that a "state chartered bank or a credit union may loan money" to applicants "for the operation of a licensed medical or retail marijuana business." This bill has already been signed by Polis and will become law in September.

Out-of-state workers can join Colorado's pot industry
Colorado marijuana regulations mandated that anyone with a marijuana industry badge — a working badge required of all pot employees in the state — be a resident. Originally written when Colorado was the only state with recreational pot, the rule was intended to limit out-of-state diversion and black market activity.
House Bill 1080, also introduced by Gray and signed by Polis, will end residency requirements for cannabis employees living in other states and allow them to apply for a license to work in Colorado. The measure does not allow potential employees to use licenses or badges from other states, and out-of-state workers will have to undergo background checks.

The feds will be further linked to Colorado hemp
It's been over eighteen months since Congress legalized hemp farming at the federal level, and after two years of rulemaking, the USDA is finally going to make its mark on Colorado hemp farmers in 2021. Although there are some inescapable changes coming, states are allowed to submit their own regulatory frameworks. Colorado's plan — proposing lighter rules around hemp sample testing, Drug Enforcement Administration involvement, and discipline for farmers whose plants go over the 0.3 percent THC limit, among other tweaks — was submitted in June and would govern the 2021 season if approved.

State legislators also passed Senate Bill 197, further aligning state hemp rules with federal law before the USDA comes around next year. The measure includes more background checks for hemp farmers while also "giving the [Colorado] commissioner of agriculture investigatory and subpoena authority," according to the bill's summary.