Gov. Polis Pardons Low-Level Cannabis Convictions

Eight years after legalization, Cannabis is no longer a crime

Those incarcerated on Cannabis charges have had records expunged by Gov. Polis
Photo Courtesy of the Colorado Governor’s Office

Ever since recreational marijuana use was legalized in Colorado back in 2012, the social justice activist community has been pushing to free those convicted of marijuana use in Colorado. Now, almost eight years since the passing of the amendment that legalized cannabis, Colorado’s governor Jared Polis has issued a mass pardon for 2,732 low-level marijuana convictions.

On Oct. 1, Gov. Polis signed an executive order that vacates the convictions of those who have been convicted of possessing an ounce or less of marijuana. This mass pardon impacts those who were convicted as far back as 1978. The gubernatorial pardon makes it so that the conviction doesn’t show up on background checks done by members of the public, people such as landlords, employers, or banks.  

The governor only got the ability to issue mass pardons recently, with a bipartisan bill being passed by the Colorado legislature back in June. Prior to the bill’s passage, one’s criminal record could only be expunged at a city or local level. 

The governor’s pardon will not remove the conviction from police databases; rather, it will show up as pardoned when an officer looks up an individual’s criminal record. This is the next focus for Colorado lawmakers. Rep. James Coleman, a lawmaker who represents Denver in the Colorado House of Representatives, worked on a bill to grant the governor’s office the ability to issue mass pardons like the one Gov. Polis recently granted. Rep. Coleman said in an interview with The Denver Post, “Whether it’s one or a thousand (people), my focus is to figure out by the time I’m done in the legislature how we not only pardon these individuals but figure out how to expunge it off their records.” Coleman has also indicated that the Colorado legislature is looking at ways to further address the opportunities and equity afforded to folks who work in the cannabis industry.  

Other states that have legalized marijuana have gone through a slightly different process to pardon those convicted of minor marijuana offenses. Nevada pardoned over 15,000 marijuana convictions earlier this year and California has set up a system to automatically expunge the records of those convicted.  

The current issue taken by advocates of furthering the expungement process has to do with legal equity. As it currently stands, prosecutors can use the former conviction as a sentencing enhancer or to persuade a jury that someone is more likely to commit a crime again, considering they have already been convicted of a crime, even if that crime has been pardoned.  

As it currently stands, there is no mechanism in Colorado to entirely expunge a criminal record. Individuals can petition to have their records sealed in the courts; however, that can often be costly and, for individuals leaving the prison system, that can be difficult to attain. Furthermore, Colorado’s expungement system now relies on the office of the governor to seek out and access who should be pardoned, which makes the process reliant on the will of the governor.  

The mass pardon issued by Gov. Polis is an important first step in seeing that justice is done by those convicted of a crime that no longer exists in the state of Colorado. Coloradans can call and email their local representatives to push for further reform to the system.

This is a selection from the Oct. 21 issue. To view the full issue, visit:

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