Denver's "Turn Over a New Leaf" program is still in its early stages, but the goal is to expunge thousands of low-level cannabis convictions that occurred before recreational pot was legal. To educate those who might be eligible, both the Denver District Attorney and the Denver City Attorney will hold in-person clinics throughout February and March, while a website will also provide instructions.
Despite these efforts, Mayor Michael Hancock's staff is still worried that people might not hear about the program or be too confused to take advantage of it. To help spread the word, former Denver Post cannabis editor Ricardo Baca and his Grasslands content strategy firm are donating their efforts to the cause. We caught up with Baca while he was on vacation in Africa to talk about why working on this project is so important.
Westword: How do you plan to spread the word about the city's expungement program?
Ricardo Baca: We're helping the city get the word out about the program (in both English and Spanish) in hopes that the people who will most benefit from this campaign will find out about it and hopefully take advantage of it. In addition to spreading the word, we're also helping the city with design and branding for the campaign, doing what we do best for an issue we are all intensely passionate about. And we're doing it pro bono, because we're confident this will make Denver a kinder, more compassionate place to live.
Why was this specific cause so important?
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My colleagues and I are legitimately excited to partner with the city on this important program, because expungement is an important and necessary step for any municipality's legalization program. In a post-legalization world, nobody should be held back by past marijuana charges — and unfortunately, that's still happening all over the U.S. and Canada as governments continue to explore different ways of clearing people's records for a substance that is now legal.
Progressive drug policy is the future, and that includes the non-cannabis substances we'll be discussing more seriously in the near future. We need to make sure that those who needlessly suffered under unjust laws have the opportunity to rid their records of those damning and permanent marks.
Does Grasslands represent any other pro bono clients?
We're quite choosy about the pro bono clients we work with, but, yes, in addition to the City of Denver and the Denver Press Club, we also donate some of our services to the Art District on Santa Fe. With the city [job], I'm a native here, and I've called Denver home for most of my life, so it's an honor to work with the responsible professionals making Denver the world-class city it's becoming. And with the Press Club, I've worked in newsrooms in this town for nearly twenty years, and I've long witnessed the dedicated work the Press Club does and the important institution it is. Not only is it the nation's oldest press club, but it's also an important gathering space for media professionals on all sides of the journalism conversation, which absolutely includes the public relations, marketing and content services we specialize in at Grasslands.
An an important side note: The Denver Press Club is also one of the most dynamic, character-rich watering holes in downtown Denver. Non-press folks should think about stopping in for a well-mixed (and affordable) cocktail more often. (The sign on the door says "Members Only," ha, but all are welcome.)
As for the Art District on Santa Fe: My wife and I live just off the art district in Denver's historic Lincoln Park neighborhood, and it's important to us to give back to the neighborhood by supporting the great programming they do there, which of course includes First Fridays and so much more. We're working on solidifying two more pro bono clients, including a national organization based in Colorado and a California-based group that is doing some fantastic work, and I can't wait to tell the world about them, too!
How does Denver's expungement program compare to those of other cities, like San Francisco or Seattle?
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All of these cities' cannabis programs are still in their infancy, so what we're seeing here is phase one of expungement. Legalizing adult-use cannabis is a significant step for any government, and it's been encouraging to see expungement become a more important and pressing part of the process in recent years. Early adopters like Colorado and Washington play a big role in more recent adopters' ability to do that. Because these early-adopter regulators — including city and state employees who worked around the clock throughout late 2013 to make sure implementation could actually happen on January 1, 2014, as promised [in Colorado] — spent so much time and energy on the regulatory process, dispensary rules, cultivation regulations and more general laws weaving legal cannabis into other elements of everyday governance, these new markets can spend more time on the nuances of legalization, which absolutely should and often does involve some sort of expungement element.
I wasn't surprised to see cities like San Francisco jump on expungement so quickly, and I'm beyond thrilled to see my home town join the mix (and props to all of the activists who have done such great work on this issue). Now it's time for everyone with legal cannabis to get with the program.
Favorite animal in Africa so far?
By faaaar, the leopard. Who knew that these animals were so majestic and strong and fierce? So cool!