Polis Pardons Pot Convictions

Those convicted of one ounce of pot possession at state level before 2012 are cleared

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With the signing of an executive order on Oct. 1, Governor Jared Polis granted pardons to over 2,000 people who were convicted of possessing one ounce or less of marijuana prior to the passing of Amendment 64. In this first of its kind action, bill sponsors and industry members alike are hopeful this will impact the lives of Coloradans directly and help others around the nation.

However, the pardon only applies to those who were convicted of possession at the state level in Colorado, and individuals convicted of municipal marijuana crimes, or arrested or issued a summons without conviction, are not included in the pardon, according to the release.

“It’s ridiculous how being written up for smoking a joint in the 1970s has followed some Coloradans throughout their lives and gotten in the way of their success,” Polis said in a statement. 

In a state factsheet about the pardons, the oldest listed date for a conviction pardoned under this executive order was 1978, and the most recent was 2012. In a statement, Polis said 2,732 convictions were pardoned for those with an ounce of marijuana or less. However, the state factsheet about the pardons states that since the pardons were granted on convictions, the exact number of people unaffected is unclear. The number quoted by Polis is only the “floor” for the number of convictions possibly eligible for pardon.

In order to select those who might have received a pardon, the CBI searched the Colorado Criminal History Database’s conviction data for one ounce of possession or less and took place in state court. As the pardons were based on conviction data instead of applications, the CBI did not review or use individuals’ other offenses or demographic info.

Brian Vicente, founding partner of Vicente Sederberg LLP and Co-Director of the Colorado Amendment 64 Initiative in 2012, said the pardons were meaningful, not only because they will impact roughly 3,000 people’s lives, but they’re also a landmark for the government’s action in marijuana.

“Ending cannabis prohibition has largely been an act of the people,” Vicente said, adding that after the language was written and put on the ballot, the people voted to change the law. “But what we have here is the legislature really taking it to the next level, and it’s empowering the governor to help end the pain point of cannabis prohibition.”

Polis said that these convictions had affected a person’s job status, housing and countless other areas of their lives. He believes that the pardons were a step in creating a more just system, “as well as coming to terms with one aspect of the past, failed policy of marijuana prohibition.”

Further, Vicente said he has represented clients over the years, who prior to Amendment 64’s passing, fell into this class of convicted marijuana possession that had made them ineligible for student loans and led to employment issues. He added that he had heard of such convictions causing issues with public housing eligibility, because it was formerly a drug conviction. 

“I think it sends a strong message and puts Colorado back in front as a thought leader in drug policy reform,” Vincente said.

Most of the celebration around the ending of cannabis prohibition is focused on the fact that marijuana retail stores are now legal and marijuana plants can be owned in the home, and tax revenue can now be generated, Vincente said. He said these were all meaningful, but there were underlying issues regarding those previously convicted or cleanups in the criminal code that he is thankful are being addressed.

Polis previously signed House Bill 1424 in June, a bipartisan bill authorizing the governor to grant pardons to defendants who were convicted of the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana, according to the release.  The bill, entitled “Social Equity Licensees In Regulated Marijuana,” concerns social equity licensees in regulated marijuana, according to the Colorado General Assembly website. The act changed the term “accelerator licensee” to “social equity licensee” and altered qualifications.

This new law went into effect at the start of the month. Under the bill, the individuals who have these convictions didn’t need to apply for pardons, and the Governor’s Office has not conducted individual assessments of the people who were pardoned via this process, according to the release.

Rep. James Coleman, one of the prime sponsors of the bill, said he received a call from a cannabis business and asked if he would run this bill. Coleman said he doesn’t typically run cannabis legislation, as he’s the Vice Chair of Business Affairs and Labor in the House.

“What I saw in this bill was an opportunity to create equity in business,” Coleman said, adding he wanted to provide more opportunity for people to work in the industry.

He added the bill was not hard to sell, however, at the last hour of the session, and on the last bill of the session this year, the two ounces of marijuana pardon amendment was added in — making it more controversial.

“This went from being a strictly business bill to being a criminal justice bill, as well,” Coleman said. “I think for me, that we all believe in equal opportunity and equity, I don’t care what side of the aisle you’re on, and especially in business.”

The current law outlines that before the governor can pardon anyone under the bill, the application must include a certificate from the superintendent of a prison where the person was held and submitted to the judge who sentenced them, the district attorney for that district and the attorney who prosecuted the person for their comments, according to the assembly website.

However, the act authorizes the governor to pardon a class of person convicted up to two ounces of marijuana without the certificate or submitting the application to anyone else.

In discussion with other elected officials, Coleman explained that both Democrats and Republicans believe everybody should have a career, a job, a place to work, a place to make money, to provide for themselves — and why is it in this industry people cannot do that especially now that it’s legal? He added that people agreed, and even in the passing there was bipartisan support for the bill because people believe in equal and equitable access for people.

To Coleman, waking up and seeing the pardons was a real and tangible impact where people can now get back to work. “I’m excited.”

Coleman said no other state has done legislation like this before, and that Colorado wants to be a model, and work with people across the country. 

For Coleman, the bill is about more than just Colorado. 

He hopes that by sharing information about what is done in this area and in the state, it will help more people in general and especially African Americans. He said that African Americans are disproportionately overrepresented in the prison system and, when getting out, it can be very difficult to find housing and employment, and this bill can ultimately help eliminate those problems by creating career opportunities through equal opportunity licenses.

Vincente feels there is a growing interest across the country in ending cannabis prohibition in all facets, and that Colorado is attempting to do this the correct way — allowing regulated tax sales, producing jobs and not burdening those previously convicted with something no longer a crime, Vincente said.

“And now we’ve made that no longer a crime, and it really just seems fair to unburden these individuals to carry on with their law-abiding lives,” Vincente said.

– Avery Martinez

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