When Amendment 64 legalized marijuana in Colorado in 2012, local marijuana enthusiasts, activists, and pretty much everyone with a past marijuana-related criminal conviction were elated at the thought that such reform could have the potential to invalidate marijuana convictions retroactively.
Unfortunately, nothing in the amendment indicated whether it would remedy the ills, injustices, or collateral consequences of the past laws or convictions. Though logically these things should happen, it is just not the way the judicial system works.
However, yesterday a Colorado appeals court took the first step to addressing amendment 64’s retroactively by ruling that certain marijuana-related, criminal convictions – for conduct now legal since December 2012 – may be overturned in court. This landmark case comes on the heels of announcements by the federal DOJ and Eric Holder concerning past drug war fails including mandatory minimum sentencing, a national overreliance on mass incarceration, and failing to embrace health-centered approaches to drug misuse issues.
Such a determination has the potential to affect how states review past drug convictions within the tide of legalization and decriminalization of both, medical and retail marijuana.
Though overall very encouraging, the scope of this ruling will likely be somewhat limited, only applying to cases that were on appeal when Amendment 64was enacted—not convictions prior to the change in law. Still, the ruling indicates a broader marriage of consensus between the state judicial system and the will of the residents in Colorado who legalized marijuana for adult use with 55 percent of the vote.
Such consensus is heartening in light of recent national shifts in opinion about the drug war and marijuana legalization which most Americans favor (58 percent, Gallup, 2013). Simply, if courts in Colorado recognize retroactive sentencing reforms about voter initiated legal amendments such as marijuana legalization, then courts elsewhere will have precedent to do the same with their evolving drug laws.
Hopefully, the shift in public opinion will eventually lead to broader reform as to how we approach drug use and misuse issues both currently and retroactively.
Imagine if the DOJ went further than just recognizing the inherent discrimination and injustice of past drug war policies such as stop and frisk, mandatory minimum sentences, and the crack-cocaine sentencing disparities, and took proactive steps to correct these past wrongs. These kinds of retroactive reforms, though not simple, are not impossible and they are reforms we must demand our legislators, representatives, and judiciary fight to correct the injustices of our past.
This ruling is a first step, and an important first step. But there is still a long way to go. It is a teaser of what is hopefully to come for retroactive conviction and sentencing reversals, an indicator of the shifting will of the people in Colorado, and a preview of what could be elsewhere.
Laura Pegram is a Colorado policy associate for the Drug Policy Alliance.