2,732 pardons issued — the most by a Colorado governor at one time — for past marijuana convictions

Polis’ order excludes full scope of convictions eligible under new state law

Michael Diaz-Rivera and Rebekah Baiyee-Cady play with their daughter, Aria, in their backyard on August 14, 2020. (Moe Clark, Colorado Newsline)

A last-minute June amendment to a bill creating social equity licenses for new cannabis businesses allowed Gov. Jared Polis to issue mass pardons of people convicted of possessing up to 2 ounces of marijuana.

The governor on Oct. 1 issued 2,732 pardons for past marijuana convictions — the most people ever pardoned by a Colorado governor at one time.

“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,” Polis said in a statement. “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.”

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In just the 10 years prior to state legalization of recreational marijuana sales in 2014, Colorado Division of Criminal Justice records show more than 16,000 guilty findings for possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana, as Colorado Newsline previously reported. But Polis’ pardons only included people convicted of possessing up to 1 ounce of marijuana, and did not include convictions in municipal courts.

“The Governor will continue evaluating potential pardons pursuant to HB20-1424. He will give thorough review to any piece of legislation that makes it to his desk,” Shelby Wieman, a spokesperson for Polis, said in an email.

Rep. James Coleman
Rep. James Coleman, D-Commerce City, sponsored House Bill 1424.

The pardons were allowed under an amendment included in House Bill 20-1424, sponsored by Rep. James Coleman, D-Denver.

That last-minute amendment was championed by Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, who hopes it will serve as his legacy in the Legislature. (He is term-limited and will leave office in January.)

“This is a huge step today: 2,700 people just got a lease on a new life,” Singer said Oct. 1. “This has been a six-year journey for me — almost seven years now — to start this process of ending the war on drugs.”

A key priority for Singer’s final year in the Legislature was to pass an expansive bill that would have created a way to automatically expunge the records for certain crimes, including those for marijuana that would have been moot had they been committed after decriminalization in 2014.

Expungement erases past convictions from someone’s record. A pardon hides criminal convictions from members of the general public, but they can still show up during certain background checks — with a note that the conviction was pardoned by the governor.

But because the expungement bill would have required funding for a database system, it was never introduced in the Legislature due to the COVID-19 budget shortfall.

“I tell people in other states when they are looking at cannabis legalization, the first thing they should be looking at is leveling the playing field for people who were hurt by the war or drugs,” Singer said. “This should not be an afterthought.”

Coleman said his goal is to pass a mass expungement bill in 2021, if he is reelected.

“Expungement would be a great next step,” he said, adding that he “absolutely will fight for that.”

Rep. Jonathan Singer
Rep. Jonathan Singer introduced an amendment to House Bill 1424.

The last-minute amendment, Coleman said, was the “cherry on top” for the social equity license bill he sponsored, along with state Sens. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, and Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins.

As an outside advocate, Sarah Woodson, founder and executive director of The Color of Cannabis, was also crucial in getting HB-1424 passed. Woodson’s organization works to help people of color enter the cannabis industry. That often involves helping people get their criminal records sealed.

“The governor and his office and his team, they made a commitment — they did exactly what they said they were going to do, and it’s a strong foundation,” she said of the pardons.

“It’s been a long time coming — it’s been 10 years since recreational cannabis has happened,” Woodson added, explaining that the pardons are the result of a “good faith effort” by Color of Cannabis, the governor’s office and state legislators. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but people need to know that our organization is in the fight.”

Woodson believes Polis will issue another round of pardons — for those convicted of possession up to 2 ounces — later this year or early in 2021. She’s also pushing for an expungement bill that ideally would both expunge misdemeanor possession convictions and allow the governor to mass-pardon people convicted of felonies for possessing 8 to 12 ounces of marijuana.

“That would be the very top of where we want to get to with really repairing and restoring what the war on drugs has done” to Black and Brown people, she said.

A bill allowing mass-pardons for felony possession could potentially help Michael Diaz-Rivera, a Denver-based teacher who was convicted on a felony possession charge after taking a plea bargain in 2006, when he was 19.

Learning the pardon wouldn’t apply to him was a “sad moment,” Diaz-Rivera said, but he’s still working to get his records sealed.

To avoid going to trial for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, then a class 4 felony, Diaz-Rivera at 19 pled guilty to a lesser charge: possession of more than 8 ounces of marijuana, a class 5 felony at the time — even though he wasn’t found with that much marijuana.

“I’ve worked so hard to overcome it, it doesn’t affect me as much,” Diaz-Rivera said of the felony on his record.

Besides allowing the governor to issue pardons, HB-1424 allows people who face economic barriers to starting their own marijuana business to receive a “social equity license.”

Under the license — similar to accelerator programs for startups in the tech industry — an entrepreneur could grow their cannabis venture while being supported by an existing business with industry experience. The new companies could then be eligible for financial assistance to help pay licensing fees through the Marijuana Enforcement Division.

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HB-1424 also established ways economically disadvantaged people and those with past marijuana offenses could qualify for an accelerator license. The bill was aimed at creating equity for people of color, who are disproportionately incarcerated for drug crimes and vastly underrepresented among cannabis business owners.

The Colorado Division of Criminal Justice data analyzed by Colorado Newsline in August showed 6.88% of findings for possession of up to 2 ounces of pot from 2004 through 2013 involved Black defendants, who represented just 4.6% of the state’s population in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

A 2018 Division of Criminal Justice report that did not break down charges in detail found that the arrest rate for Black people on marijuana-related charges (233 per 100,000) was nearly double that for white people (118 per 100,000) in 2017.

The same report found that white people were less likely to experience an on‐view arrest than Hispanic or Black people. On-view arrests, which occur when someone is taken into custody without a warrant or a previous incident report, are classified separately from those involving a warrant where someone is taken into custody; and those where a citation and court summons are issued, but no one is taken into custody.

State Rep. Leslie Herod poses for a portrait in Denver’s City Park on Aug. 16, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

At the same time, 2018 data from the Marijuana Enforcement Division shows ​​white people held 88% of owner licenses, compared with a little over 2% for Black people and 5% for Hispanic/Latino people. (The data is based on the licensees who included their race and ethnicity on applications in 2018 — about a quarter of people did not.)

According to population estimates for 2019 from the Census Bureau, 67.7% of Colorado’s population is white and non-Hispanic, 4.6% is Black and 21.8% is Hispanic or Latino.

“This pardon is long overdue and will make a real difference in the lives of countless Coloradans,” Colorado Legislative Black Caucus Chair Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, a key advocate for HB-1424, said in an Oct. 1 statement.

“Far too many people in our state have continued to suffer the consequences of a small mistake made decades ago while others profit off of the booming and legitimized cannabis industry,” Herod continued. “I’m proud to have played a part in the justice being served today.”

For more information on the governor’s pardons, or to find out whether you received one, visit COMarijuanaPardons.com.