It may seem like America’s longest war is Afghanistan but maybe not. The country has been at a ‘war’ of a different kind since 1971, when President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs calling them “public enemy number one.” Casualties of this long-running conflict include the famous, infamous and millions of faceless caught in the middle. But for the majority of victims, the wounds---or convictions---linger on.
“What a lot of people don’t realize,” said Eric Escudero, Director of Communications for Denver’s Excise and Licenses, the department that oversees the city’s marijuana retail operations, “is that a low-level conviction can be a life-long conviction.” People in this category, he said, “didn’t commit a violent act.” In fact, said Escudero, “they committed an act that in many cases is now legal.”
This paradox---being criminally charged for doing something now perfectly legal---has put untold numbers of people in a limbo that has haunted them for decades. The ghost of this mistake lingers in everything from housing to employment, said Escudero. “They’ll apply for a job and they’ll get all the way through the interview, about to get the job and someone’ll run a background check and then a low-level marijuana conviction for having a marijuana cigarette or maybe growing two plants from, maybe, twenty years ago prevents them from getting the job.” But that’s changing in Denver.
“Given the fact that possession of a small amount of marijuana is now legal in Denver, I have decided in the interest of justice and fairness,” said Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, “that my office will assist individuals convicted of a marijuana offense which would now be legal in getting their convictions dismissed and expunged.” The program is unique and, to date, the only city making this effort is Denver. The state legislature is yet to act on this issue alone.
“This is about equity for our communities of color and individuals who were disproportionately impacted by low-level marijuana convictions that are no longer crimes in Colorado,” said Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock. “Overturning these convictions is part of Denver’s multi-pronged approach to correct the social injustices caused by the war on drugs.”
Between 2001-2010, more than 8.2 million marijuana arrests were made across the country. Nearly 90 percent of all drugs arrests, said the American Civil Liberties Union, were for “simply having marijuana.” More shockingly, for minority males, arrests rates were vastly out of line with those of white males arrested for the same violation. Black males, said the ACLU, were arrested nearly four times as often. Since 2014, pot---recreational or medicinal---has been legal for those over age 21.
The DA’s office has held several clinics on its “Turn Over a New Leaf” program to explain and help those who meet the threshold for expungement. A recent clinic at Denver’s Servicios de la Raza had about twenty people who met with representatives of the DA’s office or with a City Attorney.
Older adults, young men and women, including a couple who brought their children, attended. Each showed up to find out if they would get the redress they hoped would make things easier. For Delray Schaffer, who said he’s had more than a dozen arrests for possession going back to “when I was 18 or 19,” things didn’t work out.
The forty-something handyman lamented that his bad luck with pot and the legal system just sort of happened. “Every time I looked at the cops, they pulled me over,” he said. His preternatural luck with pot and police, he said, seemed to happen with uncanny frequency especially when he visited Denver’s Civic Center Park.
“I got caught at Civic Center Park with a group of kids and I told ‘em not to hand me anything. But usually when I’m around these kids, I was the first one that got the smoke and as soon as they hand it to me, the cops are right there.”
While the New Leaf program will help a lot of people, it’s not going to do much for Schaffer, especially with his last arrest. He was caught “trying to get the sap” out of some plants. He was also using butane as a heat source. Both are crimes even under Colorado’s more relaxed marijuana statutes. “Doing it dangerously was definitely a mistake.”
The next New Leaf clinic is scheduled for March 21st from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. at Cultivated Synergy at 2901 Walnut St. in Denver. Those attending will need to have with them a government-issued photo ID, such as a drivers’ license. For those who cannot attend, the DA’s office provides “an online, self-service option.” Those interested can visit www.Denvergov.org/ANewLeaf.com. The DA said the site “will guide people through the steps needed to request expungement.” If a person qualifies for expungement, the city will draft documents and information will follow for the applicant. A state judge will make the final ruling on vacating any convictions and order sealed any records.