A Colorado law that allows adults to legally possess and use marijuana may now allow some people found guilty of minor marijuana crimes to challenge their convictions in court, a state appeals court ruled on Thursday. The decision by the Colorado Court of Appeals stemmed from a 2010 drug case in which a woman from the mountains west of Denver was convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana and a concentrated form of the drug — both of which are now legal under a 2012 ballot measure approved by Colorado voters. Her lawyers argued that the legal landscape had shifted since she was charged and that her marijuana convictions should thus be thrown out.
The court agreed, saying that the legalization law, known as Amendment 64, could apply retroactively to minor drug offenses if people had already been appealing their convictions when the measure went into effect.
Marijuana advocates cheered the decision, calling it a sign that growing public support for legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana was beginning to resonate in legal circles. They said it could help dozens of people to successfully overturn convictions for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana concentrate or for growing six or fewer marijuana plants in their homes — acts that were once illegal, but that are now allowed for adults 21 and over.
“The fact that a court in Colorado, one of the first two states to do this, came to this conclusion will hopefully have some impact on how courts in other places look at this,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports overhauling drug laws.
Still, the scope of the ruling is likely to be limited. It applies only to small amounts of marijuana that were made legal under Amendment 64, and it does not appear to open the floodgates to allow people to expunge decades-old marijuana convictions.
As more states pursue measures to legalize or decriminalize marijuana, the police, prosecutors and courts are being forced to confront thorny questions about how to handle thousands of arrests and criminal cases in light of the drug’s shifting legal status. Should prosecutors pursue existing marijuana cases once the drug is legalized? Do people convicted of possession still have to pay their fines? Do people have to admit old marijuana convictions as part of a background check?
Shortly after Colorado voters approved Amendment 64, prosecutors in Denver, Boulder and other parts of the state decided to drop pending marijuana cases that were legalized under the new law.
The case at the center of Thursday’s appeals court decision began in March 2010, when Brandi Jessica Russell and her husband took their infant son to a hospital in Granby. Doctors found a fracture on the baby’s leg, grew suspicious about the injury and the parents’ behavior, and, suspecting abuse, alerted the authorities, according to the court’s ruling. The police found small amounts of methamphetamine, marijuana and drug paraphernalia in the couple’s home, and Ms. Russell was charged with child abuse and several drug charges.
A jury acquitted her of abuse in 2011 but found her guilty of possessing methamphetamine and marijuana. The court upheld her methamphetamine conviction. Ms. Russell’s lawyer, Brian Emeson, said the court’s move to throw out the marijuana convictions was “grounded in the interests of justice.” “There’s certainly a tidal wave changing the attitudes of people,” Mr. Emeson said, “Now you’re seeing it in law enforcement and the judiciary.”
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