Denver will become the latest city to wipe low-level marijuana offenses from the record

Marijuana hangs to cure at Verde Natural's Northeast Park Hill grow facility. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Marijuana hangs to cure at Verde Natural's Northeast Park Hill grow facility. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Allan Tellis. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty; staff photo;

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced today that his administration will “move to vacate low-level marijuana convictions for Denver residents.”

The move follows months of preemptive work done by the Office of Marijuana Policy and the City Attorney’s Office and looks to be the administration’s attempt to provide a progressive solution to the harm caused by the war on drugs. During a panel regarding criminal justice equity back in early November, Ashley Kilroy, Denver’s director of marijuana policy, said the mayor gave her the green light to begin the process of expunging records for low-level offenses — and now here we are.

“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,” Mayor Michael Hancock said in a press release. “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.”

The administration has framed this decision as one of many tactics it’s employing to empower the communities that were most heavily affected by what turned out to be race-based policing practices.

There have been other noteworthy decisions to expunge marijuana records recently in states where the drug is now legal. In cities like San Francisco and states like Michigan, they are setting up the framework to begin the process. Just up the road in Boulder, the district attorney’s office is working to seal the records of anyone convicted of marijuana related crimes that would now be legal.

Vacating these records will be no small feat. More than 10,000 people were convicted of low-level marijuana crimes just between 2001 and 2013. Theresa Marchetta, the mayor’s director of strategic communications and media policy, says the administration is still in the process of designing the most efficient way to vacate these records and will provide updates soon about the specific steps Denver residents can take to participate.

Art Way, Colorado’s director for the Drug Policy Alliance, says the ideal way for low-level marijuana offenses to be handled after a state has legalized the substance is to have the protocol and need for vacating records written into the initial legislation.

Nonetheless, he says, the administration should “be applauded for making this decision.”

“If it’s true vacation and people don’t have to actually pay for it and the District Attorney’s office does it themselves, I think that’s leading by example. And hopefully the state can do something in the next legislative session,” Way said.

He says automatic vacation rather than a review process would be the way to go if the city wants to truly engage in equitable drug law reform. He stressed that when the city considers progressive reform regarding marijuana it must engage with equity on the broader level.

Kilroy is currently doing that work in the Office of Marijuana Coordination, according to Way, and has been open to the larger conversation about equity.

Hancock shared the same sentiment in a press release, noting that there are many other hurdles to overcome as the city attempts reconcile the consequences of the drug war with our shift away from prohibition.

“We need to better understand the obstacles, business conditions and regulatory hurdles preventing individuals from seeking employment or business ownership in the cannabis industry,” he said in the release. “We believe in equal opportunity for all, and that includes those working in the cannabis industry.”

Help for those communities will come in a variety of fashions, including using revenue from the industry to improve a plethora of other inequitable conditions in the city. For instance, Denver recently raised the special sales tax on the product and “these new funds are expected to double the amount of money Denver is dedicating to developing more affordable housing options in the city and create more than 6,000 additional units over the next five years.”

Way says it’s important to look at this process holistically because that’s the only way it can really be addressed.

“Marijuana legalization should be done under the lens of racial justice and broader equity,” he said. “So it’s good Denver is moving in this direction and this should be one part of a broader solution of bringing equity solutions to the marijuana industry as a whole.”

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