Slowly But Steady Overturning minor cannabis-related convictions is off to slow start in Denver

Back in December 2018, a promising announcement came from Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s office regarding the expungement of low-level cannabis convictions for Denver residents. Since legalization took place with Amendment 64 in 2012, certain low-level cannabis-related crimes are no longer considered illegal. So, in December, Hancock began a citywide effort to help acquit them.

According to that statement from the mayor’s office, more than 10,000 people were convicted of minor cannabis-related crimes in Denver between 2001 and 2013. Now that the laws have changed, Hancock says it’s unjust to still consider these convictions criminal acts, so he proposed an expungement program. Under this, people convicted of low-level cannabis infractions are eligible to have their cases reviewed and overturned.

“For too long, the lives of low-income residents and those living in our communities of color have been negatively affected by low-level marijuana convictions,” Hancock said in a statement. “This is an injustice that needs to be corrected, and we are going to provide a pathway to move on from an era of marijuana prohibition that has impacted the lives of thousands of people.”

In January, the Turn Over a New Leaf (TONL) Program was launched, which partnered with the Marijuana Information Group. Director of Communications for Excise and Licenses for the city and county of Denver, Eric Escudero, told CULTURE that the program covers the cost of clearing and sealing the records of those who apply. The group held five application clinics around Denver on various days and times so those with nontraditional work schedules could attend, Escudero said. The program formed a partnership with Lyft for a discount code, it offered food, free child care, translators and volunteer attorneys at the clinics to help people.

“We did extensive community outreach, working with our industry and community partners to share details of the program and clinics on social media and by distributing flyers across all the neighborhoods that hosted clinics,” Escudero said.

“The bottom line is that we in Denver are proud of what we have accomplished so far. We are hopeful we will continue to get more people apply for the free Turn Over a New Leaf Program.”

 

California has a similar expungement program for low-level cannabis convictions, but the state’s system is automatic. Unfortunately, in Colorado that is not the case. So, those who want to clear their records need to apply through the TONL Program. Escudero said that for Denver to automatically expunge low-level convictions, not only will the law need to change, but the state will need additional funding for groups to review past criminal records in the system.

Flash forward to October 2019. Only 59 people have completed the program to have their records cleared and sealed. With that said, 458 have applied for the program, but 231 were out of jurisdiction and 143 were ineligible, leaving just 84 eligible.

Escudero said that in an effort to expand applicants for the program, they’ve been visiting the jails in Denver to educate the inmates about the program and give them an opportunity to apply. Escudero is hoping that by doing so, more will apply and have their cases overturned. In addition to applying in person at the clinics held by the TONL Program, people may apply online, which offers English and Spanish translations.

“The failed ‘War on Drugs’ has been going on for 50 years, so it is not possible to push a button and correct the many injustices of people of color being disproportionally impacted. It will take time,” Escudero said. TONL has gained national attention and it has been receiving numerous applicants out of the program’s jurisdiction, including a large number of applicants from Florida. Escudero stressed that the program can’t turn over cases for crimes committed outside of Denver County or crimes that are still illegal or are not cannabis-related.

“The bottom line is that we in Denver are proud of what we have accomplished so far. We are hopeful we will continue to get more people apply for the free Turn Over a New Leaf Program,” Escudero summed up.

Denver is working on overturning as many convictions as possible. Escudero encourages everyone to apply at www.Denvergov.org/ANewLeaf.

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