Michael Diaz-Rivera was 19 years old when he was arrested in 2006 for felony marijuana possession in Colorado Springs. He had less than an ounce, but took a plea deal for 8 ounces or more to avoid a charge for intent to distribute.
Now, almost 15 years later, marijuana is legal in Colorado and anyone over 21 can purchase more than Diaz-Rivera was arrested for at shops on nearly every corner.
But people like Diaz-Rivera are still suffering.
“I was a 19-year-old kid when this happened and it still is finding a way to follow me,” Diaz-Rivera said. “It’s frustrating.”
In October, Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order pardoning those with state-level convictions of possessing one ounce or less of marijuana.
While 2,732 convictions were pardoned, over 10,000 possession arrests were made annually in Colorado before marijuana was legalized in 2012, leaving countless Coloradans unaffected by the pardon, according to Mason Tvert with Vicente Sederberg LLP.
Individuals who were convicted in municipal courts or arrested/issued a summons without a conviction were also not included in the pardon.
“(The pardon) is limited to a very small universe of individuals,” Tvert said. “This is not to downplay or marginalize the significance of these pardons. It’s just that the vast majority of possession convictions occur in municipal courts.”
“I’m not even entirely sure how one might find themselves in a state court instead of municipal court for possession of less than one ounce.”
Without the pardon, Diaz-Rivera and tens of thousands of others are back to fighting the stigma of marijuana convictions on their own.
Now 34 years old, Diaz-Rivera is a fifth grade teacher and a father of a 2-year-old daughter and 3-month-old son. He’s spent the years since his felony volunteering with youth at summer programs, the Boys and Girls Club and Colorado Parks and Recreation.
“I’ve been paying my debt to society and trying to overcome that ever since then,” Diaz-Rivera said. “My story shows there’s lots of deserving people left out.”
Despite his personal growth and society’s changing views of marijuana, Diaz-Rivera’s conviction still gets in the way of his goals.
Diaz-Rivera said his felony has cost him teaching jobs and still appears on some background checks, making him worry about getting housing loans to buy a house for his family.
When Diaz-Rivera moved to Denver for college, he was rejected by several housing complexes, often after paying application fees and down payments. He’s also been hired for jobs after telling them he is a felon, and then fired soon after when managers review hiring policy.
"The governor's pardon was an important step toward righting some of the wrongs caused by cannabis prohibition. But it is not the last step,” said Jordan Wellington with VS Strategies who lobbied to expand the governor's power to pardon cannabis convictions.
VS Strategies and numerous advocacy groups are continuing to fight for things like pardons of marijuana convictions and the release of people imprisoned for marijuana charges, and change is coming gradually.
Thanks to recent legislation change, Diaz-Rivera was able to receive his marijuana badge over the summer, allowing him to work in the marijuana industry.
He is currently looking to join a marijuana mentoring program to learn how to break into the industry.
“I’m just trying to learn whatever I can because I’ve been left out for so long,” Diaz-Rivera said.
Diaz-Rivera hopes future legislation will do more to help those like him who have remained untouched by pardoning efforts, including dropping all marijuana-related convictions.
“We must continue pursuing broader expungement,” Wellington said. “We're excited to continue working with (lawmakers) to improve the lives of Coloradans still suffering from the collateral consequences of cannabis prohibition."