Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, is pardoning 2,732 people convicted for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana, an act that’s been legal in that state since 2012.
“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,” Governor Polis said in a statement. “Too many Coloradans have been followed their entire lives by a conviction for something that is no longer a crime, and these convictions have impacted their job status, housing, and countless other areas of their lives.”
The state legislature passed a bill intended to increase minority ownership in the cannabis industry back in June. A component of that legislation (HB 20-1424) allows the governor to issue pardons to entire classes of people instead of individually, which can be a time-consuming and expensive process.
To someone who has never been arrested, this may not sound like a big deal, but getting rid of a conviction is not easy. Attempts in Denver and Boulder earlier this year to offer legal aid and assistance were unsuccessful in attracting applicants. Groups like the Color of Cannabis have been working with cannabis industry lawyers to offer free clinics on getting records expunged, but it’s been slow going.
The action is in line with other states dealing with a federally illegal product that’s now locally legal. The Nevada Board of Pardons Commissioners approved a resolution in June proposed by Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak to “unconditionally” pardon all convictions for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana prior to 2017 when adult-use was legalized there. In Pennsylvania, cannabis is still illegal except for medical use, but the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons established a cannabis pardon program in September. In 2017, Massachusetts included language in its initiative allowing minority owners first chance at business licenses, but the process has been slow.
The Colorado “class” includes anyone convicted of possession of one ounce or less of cannabis. Anyone pardoned doesn’t need to apply for anything. Once a conviction is pardoned, it will not appear on a criminal history obtained on the records check website. The pardons only apply to state convictions. Municipal convictions are not included, nor are individuals who received a ticket but were not fingerprinted or issued a summons.
“The pardons are a good start,” says Wanda James, CEO of Denver’s Simply Pure, the first licensed African-American dispensary in the country and an outspoken advocate for social justice in the cannabis business. “We are knocking down the dominoes to ever locking people up for cannabis. But being able to pardon people for possession of an ounce doesn’t answer for a lot of injustices. Let’s be real. It’s ridiculous they were charged in the first place.”
We are knocking down the dominoes to ever locking people up for cannabis…Wanda James
James hopes that the pardons from Governor Polis will help Americans understand the gravity of how these offenses harm individuals.
“Some kid in Alabama was probably arrested for selling a dime bag last night, while I’m talking about how many pounds I sold last month legally,” she says. “I’m thrilled with the start, but we have a long ways to go to end the criminality of all cannabis offenses.”