When cannabis was legalized in Colorado, it cold-heartedly left a huge portion of the state’s population behind: people who had been arrested just prior to its legalization or who had been convicted and thrown in prison for cannabis “crimes” — victims of America’s senseless “War on Drugs.”
While everyone around them smoked legally, and freely, they suffered: they couldn’t get jobs, they couldn’t apply for federal benefits, they had a blemish on their record that would linger for ten shitty years. Many of them served time. Some of them are still in prison.
And, of course, most of those convicted were minorities — African Americans, Hispanics, hippies — the real targets of the War on Drugs. As people started making fortunes off growing pot and growing cannabusinesses, those victims were shut out of the pot bonanza (even though they helped to start it).
They were felons, after all — which meant there was no way for them to get a piece of Colorado’s pot pie.
However, on Monday June 29th, Governor Jared Polis signed a bill into law that aims to right that wrong. HB-1424 gives Polis the power to pardon people en masse of their marijuana convictions, all across the state. It’s a big step for cannabis policy and reform. One that’s been a long time coming — and one that is, for many, a long time too late.
But it’s better late than never.
"There are too many people that have a prior conviction for personal amounts of cannabis, fully legal today, that prevent them from getting loans, from getting leases, from raising capital, from getting jobs, from getting licenses, from getting mortgages — and that's wrong," Governor Polis declared from a podium outside of Simply Pure dispensary in Denver.
This new law grants him the power to pardon people convicted for the personal possession of cannabis (any quantity under 2 ounces). It also amends a policy which prevented anyone with a felony in the past three years, from obtaining a marijuana business license. This law will go into effect on September 14th — 90 days after the final adjournment of the legislature — though, offenders will still have to seek their pardons. It won’t be done automatically.
"We hope that this measure will be the first step toward new opportunities for thousands of Coloradans who should not be living with a cloud over their heads simply because they were a little ahead of their time," Polis said, shortly before signing the bill.
The decision to sign HB-1424 outside Simply Pure dispensary was certainly a strategic one. The dispensary is owned by Wanda and Durrah James, the first African Americans in the nation to be legally licensed to own a dispensary, edibles company and cultivation facility. They also helped governor Polis to push this proposal though the state legislature.
“Social equity is about righting the wrongs of the drug war and giving diversity a strong foot hold in the developing industry. We all know the drug war unfairly targeted people and communities of color,” said Wanda James. “Too many people who look like me were not given a fair opportunity to participate due to the prohibitive policies that target people of color many states, including Colorado, embraced early.”
So, while this new law will affect people of all races, ages and gender, it is going to affect people of color to a much greater degree. This bill will remove some of the road-blocks that have kept black and Hispanic entrepreneurs from entering and participating in the cannabis industry, legally, since it was voted on.
Which should have massive effects on the diversity of the cannabis industry. Realistically, since it was legalized and removed from the black market, cannabis has been a lily-white industry. Many of the African Americans and Hispanics who would have happily and successfully entered it, were locked up, or had felonies on their records which prevented them from having any kind of role in cannabis.
Larisa Bolivar, a Cannabis Consumer Coalition director stated after the signing: “Today marks a historical day in Colorado where we move toward social equity in cannabis and help drive the conversation as a whole for the state, which severely lacks diversity.”
Though, she added, the fight for social equity in the cannabis industry is “far from over.”
Which is still putting it mildly. Denver’s most recent marijuana industry survey shows that a whopping 88-percent of the cannabis industry self-identifies as white. For an industry that was upheld on the black market by African Americans and Hispanics for so long, that number is drastically out of whack. It’s socially in-equitous — and largely because the blacks and Hispanics who were involved with cannabis prior to its legalization are still considered criminals, and are still barred from entering the industry.
Hopefully, though, Governor Polis’ new ability to pardon Coloradoans for cannabis crimes will start to change that — by cleaning people’s records of offenses that were never violent or harmful to begin with; by giving people their future opportunities back; by not punishing them for something that’s totally legal and largely accepted in today’s world.
Regardless of how late this bill is, it represents a very positive step forward for the cannabis industry, its public perception and for the people who helped plant its roots.