Legislature Gives Polis Power to Expunge Past Marijuana Crimes

Low-level marijuana possession is no longer a crime in Colorado, but charges from pre-legalization days still impact lives.EXPAND
Low-level marijuana possession is no longer a crime in Colorado, but charges from pre-legalization days still impact lives.
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On June 15, the last day of the session, Colorado lawmakers approved a bill granting the state's governor the right to expunge low-level marijuana crimes from the records of people arrested or charged before the plant was legalized in late 2012.

Originally drafted to define social equity applicants in the marijuana industry, Representative James Coleman's House Bill 1424 was introduced less than a week ago under late-bill status. The measure quickly moved through the House and into the Senate, with an amendment introduced along the way that would give the governor the power to expunge the records of those convicted of the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana.

"This bill is a product of effective stakeholder work that created a path forward on important social equity policies," according to a spokesperson for Governor Jared Polis. "The Governor is happy that a meaningful, bipartisan bill addressing marijuana equity passed the legislature, and thanks lawmakers for their efforts to get this bill to his desk."

Polis wouldn't need permission from district attorneys across Colorado to issue the pardons, but instead could work with the Colorado Attorney General's Office and AG Phil Weiser — a vocal proponent of marijuana-related record-clearing in the past — to implement the expungement process and decide on an application fee for pardon applicants.

The move was a ninth-inning walk-off for Representative Jonathan Singer, who pushed the amendment with just a few days left before he's term-limited out of the House. The measure was the very last bill to pass in the 2020 legislative session.

Singer, Coleman and Senator Julie Gonzales all worked together to push the bill through a General Assembly Conference Committee, despite opposition in the final hours from several representatives who felt that the expungement amendment lacked appropriate stakeholder input and overstepped the criminal-justice reform process, as it was attached to a bill originally concerning business regulation.

Representatives Matt Soper, Terri Carver and Patrick Neville said they felt the amendment instead should be part of a 2021 bill for criminal-justice reform, though both Soper and Neville said they could agree with the spirit of the language. Carver, however, had deeper issues with the proposal, and was vocal about her disdain for marijuana use while reminding her colleagues that Colorado legalized one ounce of possession of marijuana in 2012, not two ounces (the possession limit for medical marijuana patents).

"This is just wrong on process, as well as an area that really requires testimony and a stakeholder process when you are modifying the governor's power to pardon a category of person with use or possession of marijuana," she said. "Wrong process, wrong criteria."

However, proponents were able to convince their colleagues that the two issues could be connected, because Colorado's marijuana industry bans drug felons from owning pot businesses for several years after finishing their sentences.

"When we are talking about business licensing and creating an equity model for people, we need to think about the people who have been left behind in our War on Drugs," Singer said on the House floor before the bill passed. "There are people who are still paying for crimes that are now legal and constitutional. ... Could there have been more stakeholders? Absolutely, but here are stakeholders who never come to this building every single day because of our current laws."

On top of Polis's new pardoning power, the bill 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.

“I can’t even express how happy I am that this passed. We absolutely needed this to move forward and be an inclusive bill for so many important reasons, like ensuring that candidates will be able to obtain licensing and that more people will qualify by including a broad definition for social equity," says Cannabis Consumers Coalition director Larisa Bolivar.

Bolivar hired marijuana lobbyist Cindy Sovine, who worked with fellow lobbyist Samantha Walsh to push the measure through the legislature. Now that there is a definition of an applicant for future social equity licensing programs at the state level, as well as a state definition on which local governments can model their own programs, marijuana diversity advocates hope to see more efforts toward making the state's marijuana industry less than 88 percent white, which it was in 2018, according to the state Marijuana Enforcement Division.

"This is just tip of the iceberg. There is more work to be done, but we are very satisfied that we were able to get legislation passed that creates a strong foundation for equity in our state moving forward," says Sarah Woodson, director of marijuana diversity organization The Color of Cannabis. Woodson, who has also been pushing the social equity definition while advocating for more aggressive policies within Denver's local governance, says she will "continue to engage and provide our community services that help them enter into the industry."

The bill now awaits Polis's signature.

Update: This story was updated at 7 a.m. June 16 to include a statement from Governor Jared Polis's office.

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