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In a Historic Move, Gov. Jared Polis Clears Thousands of Low-Level Marijuana Convictions

In June, the Colorado General Assembly passed a bill that allows governors to grant mass pardons for low-level marijuana convictions.

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In an executive order signed on October 1, Gov. Jared Polis automatically pardoned 2,732 low-level marijuana convictions for possession of one ounce or less, dating back to 1978.

Possession of one ounce or less of marijuana has been legal since Amendment 64 passed in 2012, yet people with convictions from pre-legalization days on their records can still face restricted access to jobs, housing, education, and the right to vote because of their criminal records. Notably, it can also prevent them from obtaining employment in the cannabis industry, which bans anyone with a drug felony from the past 10 years.

“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 press release announcing his action.

The convictions pardoned under Polis’ executive order will no longer show up on background checks done by members of the public, such as landlords or bank employees. When law enforcement does a background check, the conviction will still appear, but it will be flagged as pardoned.

In June, the Colorado General Assembly passed a bipartisan house bill that gave Colorado governors the ability to grant mass pardons for low-level marijuana convictions. Previously, record expungement could only be done at the city level by local district attorney’s offices. In recent years, Denver and Boulder have established programs to help offenders apply for record expungements, but both cities’ programs reached only a small percentage of those who are eligible. This is likely because the programs require the offenders themselves to apply, an effort that even those championing the programs believe is unfair.

“I think the burden rests with the government, with us,” says Boulder District Attorney Michael Dougherty. With the governor’s mass pardon, the state government is taking a step toward alleviating that burden—the 2,732 convictions were cleared automatically without offenders having to apply.

While Colorado leads the nation in marijuana legalization, other states that have subsequently legalized marijuana, such as Illinois and Massachusetts, have included statewide expungement for past possession crimes as part of their initial laws. Rosalie Flores, a community organizer active in the local cannabis industry, says Colorado had “zero equity conversations” when legalization was first introduced. Other states, she says, have looked to Colorado’s model for legalization, but now it is our turn to stand back and learn from other states.

It appears that has been happening. State Rep. Jonathan Singer (D-Longmont), who championed the House bill granting Colorado governors pardoning power, says he has had conversations with representatives from California and Illinois, seeking to learn how they are approaching expungement initiatives. Last year, Illinois became the 11th state to legalize recreational marijuana. The text of its law provides for automatic expungement of certain low-level marijuana offenses. Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker said in a statement before the vote, “Illinois is poised to become the first state in the nation that put equity and criminal justice reform at the heart of its approach to legalizing cannabis.”

This process is expected to be ongoing; the governor says he will consider additional pardons in the future. But for now, more than 2,700 Coloradans will have an easier path forward. “Today we are taking this step toward creating a more just system and breaking down barriers to help transform people’s lives as well as coming to terms with one aspect of the past, failed policy of marijuana prohibition,” Polis said.

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