Governor Jared Polis has signed a bill that grants him the power to pardon people who were charged with possession of two ounces of marijuana or less before the state legalized the plant in November 2012, and he confirms that he intends to use that power.
Originally drafted to define social equity applicants in the marijuana industry, Representative James Coleman's House Bill 1424 eventually included an amendment giving Colorado governors the right to issue mass pardons with approval from local judges or district attorneys. The new law will take effect September 14, ninety days after the final adjournment of the Colorado Legislature.
"There are too many people that have a prior conviction for personal amounts of cannabis, fully legal today, that prevent them from getting loans, from getting leases, from raising capital, from getting jobs, from getting licenses, from getting mortgages — and that's wrong," Polis said before signing the bill. "We hope that this measure will be the first step toward new opportunities for thousands of Coloradans who should not be living with a cloud over their heads simply because they were a little ahead of their time."
Polis will be able to issue the pardons for possession of up to two ounces of marijuana — the possession limit in Colorado for medical marijuana patients — en masse, but former offenders still have to seek their pardons, because there is currently no state database that lists all marijuana possession crimes. However, the process is expected to be streamlined after its implementation is worked out by Polis's administration and the Colorado Attorney General's Office.
According to Sarah Gersten, executive director of marijuana criminal reform organization the Last Prisoner Project, Colorado's process for a marijuana pardon will be relatively easy compared to the state's current record-sealing options, as well as the majority of other states, which require court petitions and judge approval.
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"You still have to apply or make some kind of request to petition to have your record cleared, but it's still a much simpler process than filing a legal motion. And what we've found in the last couple of years is, there was a really big uptake gap around petition-based processes," Gersten says of Colorado's current process as well as other states with marijuana expungement, such as Nevada.
"By housing the authority within the executive [branch], it cuts down some of that work. It doesn't negate that this is resource-intensive.... It's going to take time for the Department of Corrections and local authorities to work through their systems."
At the signing, Polis confirmed that he would issue a mass pardon, but he didn't offer a date.
Polis signed the bill on June 29 at Simply Pure dispensary, a Denver marijuana store owned by Wanda James; she and her husband, Scott Durrah, were the first African-Americans legally licensed in America to own a dispensary, a cultivation facility and an edibles company. James, a former Polis campaign advisor, helped push for the proposal.
“Social equity is about righting the wrongs of the drug war and giving diversity a strong foothold in the developing industry. We all know the drug war unfairly targeted people and communities of color, leaving families and people stuck in the criminal justice system for decades,” James says. “We legalized a plant, and too many people of color were unable to participate in this new market opportunity."
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On top of the governor's new pardoning power, HB 1424 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.
“Today marks a historical day in Colorado where we move toward social equity in cannabis and help drive the conversation as a whole for the state, which severely lacks diversity," said Cannabis Consumer Coalition director Larisa Bolivar after the signing, adding that the fight for social equity is "far from over.”
The state Marijuana Enforcement Division's most recent survey on marijuana-industry ownership found that 88 percent of Colorado pot business owners identified as white, while a similar survey conducted by the City of Denver determined that nearly 75 percent of Denver marijuana businesses had white owners.
Update: This article was updated at 10:20 a.m. June 30 to correct an error in quotes from Sarah Gersten.