Colorado lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a bill last month to increase the amount of marijuana adults can legally possess from one ounce to two ounces. Upon signing it, Gov. Jared Polis said his office would review records of past possession convictions in preparation for pardoning any individuals whose only crime is no longer an illegal activity. It is hard to imagine why anyone could object.
It has been nearly a decade since voters decided to legalize cannabis for adult use in Colorado. At this point, any remaining debate about cannabis policy is focused on regulations and taxes. Most Coloradans now view cannabis in relatively the same way they think of alcohol. Just about everyone agrees possession of small amounts should not be a crime, and many feel it never should have been to begin with.
Cannabis arrests began dropping immediately in Colorado after legalization took effect in December 2012. Previously, the state was branding several thousand adults as criminals every year for simple possession.
For decades, the state has defined possession of up to two ounces as an extremely low-level petty offense punishable by a fine of up to $100 and no possibility of jail time. But as Polis noted, past convictions cast a “long shadow” that can haunt individuals their entire lives. Having even a low-level possession offense on your record can “get in the way of getting loans or leases or licenses or jobs or mortgages or many other things.” The governor also pointed out that past convictions and their collateral consequences disproportionately impact people of color, who have long been arrested for possession at greater rates than whites despite using cannabis at similar levels.
Last October, Polis pardoned more than 2,700 individuals with past convictions for possession of up to one ounce of cannabis. The sky did not fall. Nor will it fall if he extends his pardon to individuals with past convictions of between one and two ounces.
Imagine if nearly 10 years after the repeal of alcohol prohibition, a governor pardoned a few thousand adults whose only crime had been possession of a case of beer or a couple bottles of vodka. Polis is essentially doing just that, only in this case the individuals in question possessed a substance that is objectively less harmful than alcohol to the consumer and to society.
Most Coloradans are ready to move on from cannabis prohibition. Even some who staunchly defended it now recognize the harm and injustices it caused. For years, former Gov. John Hickenlooper and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock fought legalization efforts. Today, they both defend Colorado’s adult-use cannabis law, and Hancock is championing a local program aimed at sealing records of past cannabis convictions.
If we want to put prohibition behind us, we must address the lasting damage it has had and would continue to have without these restorative actions by our elected officials. The governor’s forthcoming pardons should, therefore, be cause for celebration, not alarm.
Still, there will be some who express concern or even feign outrage. Critics will claim these pardons will flood the street with violent criminals, despite them only being narrowly granted for a petty offense that carried no possibility of jail time. They will also argue that people must be held accountable if they broke the law. But shouldn’t the government also be held accountable when it creates and unfairly enforces an unreasonable law that inflicted harm on its citizens?
By pardoning past possession convictions, Polis is attempting to rectify an imbalance of justice and take responsibility for the government’s misguided war on marijuana. His leadership should be applauded. The only way Colorado can truly move on from cannabis prohibition is to ensure it leaves no Coloradans behind.
Mason Tvert is a partner at Colorado-based cannabis policy consulting firm VS Strategies, and he co-directed the 2012 initiative campaign to regulate marijuana like alcohol in Colorado.