Colorado’s governor would be newly empowered to unilaterally pardon people with prior marijuana possession convictions under a social equity bill that lawmakers sent to his desk on Monday.
Less than a week after the Colorado House of Representatives first passed the legislation, which would create a statewide definition for which businesses qualify as cannabis social equity license applicants, the Senate cleared the legislation with an amendment granting the governor the power to expedite pardons without consulting with prosecutors and judges involved in the cases, as is typically required under statute.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. James Coleman (D), passed in a 24-9 vote in the Senate before heading back to the House for final approval.
“I’m really pleased, as you’d imagine, that we were able to get this kind of legislation passed in this amount of time,” Coleman told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Monday. “I think it’s a testament to the amount of work that our stakeholders did outside of the building, but also a testament to my colleagues in the legislature who agree that we should have an opportunity for folks to work equitably in an industry that is booming and is really taking a lead here in Colorado.”
The bill’s passage comes after months of conversations between reform advocates, industry stakeholders and lawmakers—and just before the end of the legislative session.
“Many bills have been introduced in the last week or so and are moving just as quickly through the process,” a spokesperson for Gov. Jared Polis (D) told Marijuana Moment. “This bill is a product of good stakeholder work to find a path forward on important policy in a way to also not generate opposition. The governor is happy that a meaningful, bipartisan bill addressing equity is advancing and thanks lawmakers for their efforts to get this bill to his desk.”
The Senate amendment to the legislation states that the “governor may grant pardons to a class of defendants who were convicted of the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana without an application and without seeking the comment of the district attorneys and judges for those cases.”
While the governor already has authority to grant pardons, statute maintains that he or she must first submit an application to the district attorney “for such comment as they may deem proper concerning the merits of the application, so as to provide the governor with information upon which to base his or her action.”
Some lawmakers, including one of the bill’s House cosponsors, took exception to the move to add the pardon provision, arguing that it violated the state Constitution’s single-subject rule. The House initially moved on Monday evening to reject the Senate amendment, referring the bill to a bicameral conference committee to work out the differences. But after that body refused to make any changes from the Senate version, both chambers took final votes to send the legislation to Polis’s desk.
Colorado isn’t the only state making big moves on cannabis clemency. The governor of Nevada introduced a resolution last week that would enable tens of thousands of residents who’ve previously been convicted of low-level marijuana possession to receive blanket pardons.
The pardon provision of the Colorado measure is just one component of a bill that is primarily focused on enabling people from communities harmed by the war on drugs to participate in the marijuana industry by creating a definition for social equity businesses—a policy change that will also help local governments as they consider implementing restorative justice programs for the cannabis market.
Currently, only those from economically disadvantaged communities qualify for the state’s cannabis accelerator program, which allows eligible individuals to use existing marijuana facilities to build their business. This bill would create two additional categories for eligibility, with a focus on restorative justice.
The proposal stipulates that a person would be eligible under the social equity program if they meet at least one of three criteria: 1) they lived in a designated economically distressed community for a minimum of 15 years between 1980 and 2010, 2) the applicant or a member of their immediate family has been arrested or convicted for a marijuana offense or 3) their income is at or below an amount to be determined later in rulemaking.
“A person who meets the criteria in this section for a social equity licensee, pursuant to the rule and agency discretion, may be eligible for incentives available through the Department of Revenue or Office of Economic Development and International Trade, including but not limited to a reduction in application or license fees,” the text of the bill states.
Coleman said that the legislation “supports social equity in the cannabis industry and it provides a leveled playing field for those who were convicted of marijuana offenses prior to its legalization in Colorado.”
“As a black legislator, as a man of color here in the state—someone who grew up here—there are a lot of people that are in my community who’ve been affected by this,” he said, adding that “if you are convicted of an offense [that was later made legal], we should make it so that you can” participate in the market.
“That’s important for me, especially as a black legislator,” he said. “But also it provides guidance to local governments who are currently exploring these definitions themselves.”
Advocates say this definition would help resolve some of the confusion that individual jurisdictions like Denver have faced when enacting their own equity programs.
The governor’s press secretary previously told Marijuana Moment that “the administration is supportive of this bill and looks forward to seeing it pass.”
“This legislation would create a social equity definition in statute. This is an important first step toward developing a meaningful social equity program to assist those who have been disenfranchised by the failed war on drugs. Having a definition in statute will help local governments currently considering equity programs. The governor is committed to working with stakeholders to promote diversity within this growing industry and ensure efforts around this challenge are meaningful and purposeful.”
The legislation would also amend a policy prohibiting those with felony convictions in the past three years from obtaining a marijuana business license. Those applying as social equity applicants would not be subject to that prohibition.
As one of the first states to legalize for adult use, Colorado didn’t have the benefit of learning from the experiences of other states in terms of implementing social equity and restorative justice provisions for people from communities historically targeted by prohibition enforcement. But now legislators seem to be playing catch-up, with defining social equity as part of that process.
Separately, Colorado issued its first marijuana delivery license in March and a limited number of shops have started offering that service.
Polis’s administration is also looking into solutions to cannabis businesses’ banking access problems that exist because of the federal-state policy conflict on marijuana.
This story was updates to reflect the bill’s final passage by both chambers.