Colorado Gov. Jared Polis is one pen stroke away from having expanded powers to pardon persons in the state with low-level marijuana possession convictions.
The proposed measure is the result of an amendment to a bill approved by Colorado’s General Assembly at the end of this legislative session. The bill, HB 1424, would expand access to the state’s cannabis industry for people of color. The amendment, put forward by Rep. Jonathan Singer (D-Longmont), would allow the governor to mass-pardon possession convictions of 2 ounces or less of cannabis, without the input of the District Attorney or the judge concerned with the particular case.
The main provisions in the bill would remove restrictions on individuals with past cannabis convictions from applying for a marijuana industry license. Another would give higher priority for marijuana industry licenses to individuals from socially-deprived areas.
Rep. Singer had previously sponsored a standalone bill that would automatically expunge past cannabis convictions, but his plans were scuppered due to the coronavirus outbreak. With Colorado lawmakers largely consumed by the state’s response to COVID-19 – as is the case across the country – and with the 2020 legislative session coming to a close, Singer decided to try and insert an expungement amendment onto the bill concerning social equity in the marijuana industry.
“When we talk about a business licensing and equity model, we need to be thinking about people left behind in the War on Drugs,” Singer said. “There are people who are still paying for their crimes that are now legal and constitutional.”
“As someone that ended up making a lot of their career in the legislature on everything from helping people struggling with substance abuse to creating the legal marijuana industry as we know it now, this is the biggest blind spot,” he said.
The amendment was approved by the conference committee with one addition: that the governor can consult with others about pardons if he or she wishes to.
The inclusion of an expungement amendment to a bill concerned with social equity in Colorado’s marijuana industry was not universally welcomed. Rep. Matt Soper, (R-Delta), withdrew as a sponsor of the bill citing his disapproval with the process under which the amendment was added, rather than the content of the proposal itself.
“It shifted from a marijuana business licensing bill to becoming a criminal justice bill concerning mass expungement and record sealing for an entire class of offenders,” Soper said.
Under legislation passed in 2017, individuals with misdemeanor marijuana convictions can petition the courts to seal their records. The new proposal would allow the governor to do this unilaterally. Gov. Jared Polis is thought to be supportive of the initiative but his spokesperson, Conor Cahill, declined to confirm whether or not the governor would sign the bill into law.
“The Governor is happy that a meaningful, bipartisan bill addressing marijuana equity passed the legislature and thanks lawmakers for their efforts to get this bill to his desk,” Cahill said.