Less Than 1% of Colorado’s Eligible Pot Convicts Have Cleared Their Records
Colorado law has made it difficult for former pot convicts to get their records sealed, namely because the state doesn’t allow expungements nor automatic records sealing.
Published on October 18, 2019

Weed legalization’s momentum will likely catapult our favorite plant into federally-legal status soon. The big questions that remain address how marijuana will be legalized, and more importantly, what happens to the victims of America’s unjust drug war.

According to the state’s Turn Over a New Leaf program, which works to have low-level pot offenses dismissed, thrown out, or sealed, an incredibly small number of people have actually gotten their weed convictions dismissed or sealed. In Denver, only 60 people (less than 1 percent) out of 13,000 eligible have gotten their low-level weed convictions sealed. In Boulder, just 11 people (or about two-tenths of 1 percent) out of 4,000 eligible have done the same. 

“I think we did the best we could,” said Turn Over a New Leaf’s director, Ashley Kilroy, to the Denver Post. Despite the low turnout so far, Kilroy expected turnout to be even lower given the lack of progress similar expungement programs have experienced in other states.

Turn Over a New Leaf currently holds workshops and expungement clinics for anyone looking to have their records sealed. An online portal offers Turn Over a New Leaf’s services from the convenience and privacy of one’s own home.

Criminal records for low-level cannabis offenses, such as possession of small amounts of flower or growing just a few plants at home, carry serious, disruptive consequences for the individual. Criminal records can derail a convict’s ability to get a job, find housing, or receive loans or credit. They can also affect child custody cases, the ability to secure student loans, and can even count against someone in future criminal cases. 

Fortunately, Colorado’s nascent pot industry will usually overlook cannabis offenses when hiring. But other industries may not be so forgiving. Besides, continuing to punish former pot convicts for behaviors that aren’t only deemed legal now, but financially lucrative, as well, seems incredibly unfair in an age of widespread weed legalization. 

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In Colorado, the first state to launch recreational, or adult-use, marijuana sales, clearing criminal records for low-level weed offenses is proving incredibly difficult due to the state’s laws. Colorado laws ban automatic expungements, which completely remove prior criminal convictions from an individual’s record. Furthermore, Colorado doesn’t even allow expungements in most cases, but the state can seal criminal records so offenses are hidden from background checks.

Compared to Colorado, California, which recently implemented a statewide expungement program, has essentially streamlined the process. California law requires the state, not the individual, to initiate the expungement process. But in Colorado, cannabis convicts must begin their own records-sealing process, which usually requires hiring an expensive lawyer and paying at least $100 in court and state fees. In other words, expungement in the Centennial State is only available to those who have money.

Sealing or dismissing previous pot convictions isn’t easy in Colorado, either. State officials must dive into the individual’s criminal history and court documents. They can only clear convictions that meet specific criteria, such as there being no violent or other drug offenses attached to the cannabis offense. Additionally, many court documents only list that the individual possessed an illicit substance — and not which drug, specifically — which further complicates the process.

There’s also the fact that word about the program hasn’t spread as far and wide as it should have by now. Kilroy told the Denver Channel that Turn Over a New Leaf has been speaking at the state’s prisons and jails to promote the program, but it’s possible that most former pot convicts in Colorado just aren’t aware of it.

“Tying expungement to legalization is a relatively new phenomena,” said Sam Kamin, a cannabis law professor at the University of Denver, to the Denver Post. Newer states to legalize, such as Illinois, have included automatic expungements in their legalization bills. 

Colorado voters approved of adult-use legalization in 2012 with Amendment 64. The original draft of the bill included amelioration for pending cannabis cases, as well as a provision for sealing past criminal records, but those clauses did not make it into the final version of the bill.

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Randy Robinson
Based in Denver, Randy studied cannabinoid science while getting a degree in molecular biology at the University of Colorado. When not writing about cannabis, science, politics, or LGBT issues, they can be found exploring nature somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Catch Randy on Twitter and Instagram @randieseljay
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