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Governor Jared Polis has set up a new law enforcement agency to automatically pardon 2,732 low-level marijuana possession convictions effective October 1.
His authority to do so is based on a new law that allows the Colorado governor to pardon convictions for possession of two ounces of marijuana or less. However, these pardons only cover convictions for an ounce or less. Polis’ move automatically pardoned state convictions dating back as much as fifty years and lasting until late 2012 when voters approved Amendment 64. Since a person can have multiple convictions for marijuana possession, the governor does not know exactly how many people he pardoned. but he estimates it to be “thousands of people”.
“It’s not on their records. If they have a background check at work or want a concealed weapon permit or a student loan, it won’t hold anyone back,” Polis says. “And it’s symbolic too, because it shows that we as a state and nation are resigning ourselves to the false discriminatory laws of the past that punished people for possessing small amounts of marijuana.”
Coloradans over twenty have been legally allowed to own up to one ounce of marijuana since late 2012, while medical marijuana patients have been allowed to own up to two ounces of marijuana since 2000.
Prior to the governor’s move, ex-marijuana offenders whose crimes are now legal had to apply to their respective courts for a judge’s approval to erase their records. The previous convictions will no longer appear on background checks of work or by banks, landlords, or other members of the public, but will continue to appear as a pardoned conviction on background checks by law enforcement and state licensing.
When the law was passed in June authorizing the governor’s power to pardon those convictions, questions arose about how the process worked, including whether the pardon would be automatic, how the state compiles a list of eligible ex-offenders would and whether the local prosecutors would be involved. Polis said his staff did not have to consult local prosecutors or judges to issue pardons, but collecting the list of previous offenders “was not easy,” he notes.
“The Colorado Bureau of Investigation searched the conviction data of the Colorado Criminal History database for all convictions,” he said. “The convictions were then reviewed to ensure they were heard in a state court and legitimate convictions were identified based on the conviction data. We were then able to proactively pardon all 2,732 convictions at once.”
The pardons only apply to convictions in state courts; The governor has no power to resolve charges from city courts. Anyone wanting to see if they’ve received a pardon can visit a new, government-funded website, comarijuanapardons.com, which is up and running starting today.
“Nobody has to apply,” says Polis.
Colorado, the first state to legalize recreational marijuana in the country, has been criticized for doing little to repair the damage caused by the war on drugs, while states new to retail like Illinois and Massachusetts are expelling it of marijuana and the socially fair licensing of companies into their legal marijuana language. Denver and Boulder both have expulsion programs in place for former low-ranking marijuana offenders, but those programs required filings and judicial approval, resulting in low numbers of applicants and less approved evictions.
With the ACLU estimating that around 4,700 people were arrested for marijuana possession in Colorado in 2018 alone, fewer than 3,000 pardons for marijuana convictions over a fifty-year period seem like a drop in the ocean. But Polis argues that he can only forgive people who have done something that is no longer illegal, and that not all marijuana crimes are created equal.
“The way we hold people accountable for the past should reflect current law,” he says. “If there were more changes to the laws surrounding marijuana, we would also make sure that people weren’t punished for doing something in the past that is legal today. But of course you can’t sell marijuana without an official one To be a pharmacy.
“There are a lot of guard rails for marijuana, as well as for alcohol and tobacco,” Polis concludes. “And if you violate something that is still illegal, it would be not just a pardon, but ‘an indictment for the future.”
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Thomas Mitchell has been writing about everything cannabis-related for Westword since 2014, covering sports, real estate, and general news en route to publications like the Republic of Arizona, Inman, and Fox Sports. He is currently the cannabis editor for westword.com.