The Colorado Legislature, in one of its last acts of the 2020 session, passed House Bill 1424, a measure intended to help boost minority ownership in the cannabis industry. Monday night, Gov. Jared Polis signed the bill, which includes a way to more easily expunge the criminal records of people in prison, on parole or who have served time for low-level cannabis convictions.

The time couldn’t be better. We’re trying to find ways to deal with overcrowded prisons — which have become coronavirus incubators — and let’s face it: No one should be behind bars for low-level cannabis offenses. It’s that simple.

When Amendment 64 was conceived and passed in 2012, there wasn’t much discussion about restorative justice, minority ownership or expungement of criminal records of those charged with something that became legal. Since then, some states have required social-equity inclusions as part of their initiatives. 

Even that hasn’t always worked out as expected. Massachusetts in 2017 included language in its legalization initiative allowing minority owners first chance at business licenses. The licensing process, however, has been onerous enough that only one Boston minority owner has been able to open a recreational store, a business that was looted during the recent riots and protests.

In Nevada, its Board of Pardons Commissioners on June 17 approved a resolution proposed by Gov. Steve Sisolak to “unconditionally” pardon all convictions for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana prior to 2017, when adult-use was legalized there. And in Pennsylvania, cannabis is still illegal except for medical use, but the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons established a cannabis pardon program in September. Last week, the first 26 applicants were approved and were headed to Gov. Tom Wolf, who has said he will review each applicant individually.

That’s part of the problem here in Colorado. The governor right now has the power to pardon anyone. But people have to apply, which is then reviewed. This bill allows the governor to pardon classes of people instead of just individuals. He could create a class of small-time offenders and purge each of their records. With hundreds, possibly thousands of people affected, it’s a game-changer.

If you’ve never had a criminal record or been arrested for say, possession of cannabis, you might not have considered the ramifications. But the figures don’t lie. If you’re black or brown-skinned, you have a much higher chance of being stopped, arrested and convicted of a low-level cannabis infraction than if you’re white. Even if you aren’t imprisoned, that record can follow you around, often with disastrous results. You can be denied a job or business license, a bank loan or even the chance to rent an apartment or house. That record can really mess with those trying to get on with their lives. 

Cities and counties have tried, with little luck, to get people to apply for clemency. Both Boulder County and the city of Denver have offered expedited expungement plans, but neither has been able to draw many applicants because the rules are prohibitive, you have to understand the law, and it takes work and money and time to get your record cleared. Some groups, such as The Color of Cannabis, are working with cannabis industry lawyers, like Vicente Sederberg, to offer free expungement clinics. But for sweeping expungements to take place, an automatic system is necessary.  

Term-limited Rep. Jonathan Singer had planned to bring an auto-expungement bill before the House this session. The suspension of the legislature due to COVID-19 prevented that, but he was able to tack a form of it onto the social equity bill with a last-minute amendment offering power to the governor to quickly expunge records. 

Singer, one of the only legislators who supported legalization in 2012, is not a cannabis user himself. But he has been an avid supporter of the industry and instrumental in getting his colleagues to do the same.

“I felt like it was a huge missing piece to what I wanted to accomplish before I left,” he says. “The crux of the bill is this: The vast majority of people with licenses are not those victimized by the drug war. The biggest hindrance to getting that license is a criminal record.” 
Gov. Polis said at the signing that the process will begin in 90 days. For those affected, it can’t be soon enough.