Who Let the Drugs Out? Denver Clears Cannabis Crimes

Denver recently introduced the progressive 'Turn Over a New Leaf' (TONL) program, which will expunge all low-level offenses involving cannabis possession prior to legalization. The move is a revolutionary step forward in both how we view the prison system and how society tolerates drug use. But, before we dive into the TONL program, let's look at how we got here.

In the 1930's, the propaganda around drugs started to ramp up. Harry Anslinger, commissioner for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (now the DEA) used marijuana to demonize minorities such as African Americans and Hispanics, and further his racially driven agenda to ban virtually all drugs. Seven years later the Marijuana Tax Act was introduced, banning the possession and distribution of marijuana.

This can be seen as the beginnings of the War on Drugs, which continues globally to this day. And since Anslinger's began his efforts, millions have been imprisoned simply for the possession of an unapproved substance like cannabis, without having committed any other crime.

 

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The Failure Of The War On Drugs

In 2016, over half a million people were arrested in the U.S. alone for possession of marijuana. This is despite marijuana having been made recreationally legal in eight states at this time. (We're now up to 11 states that have legalized cannabis.)

And, as you can see from the chart below, cannabis use hasn't tapered off because of the drug war. In fact, adolescent drug use has decreased since legalization.

From a certain perspective, it almost seems like the war on drugs ended up being worse than the drugs themselves. As Bill Murray famously said, "I find it ironic that the most dangerous thing about weed is getting caught with it."

And he's not wrong. Contrary to the depictions of cannabis users found in 'Reefer Madness', the legalization of cannabis hasn't led to a state of anarchy, murder and disarray. In fact, there's a growing wealth of information to suggest the opposite.

As of 2019, cannabis has created over 211,000 full time jobs – a phenomenon Leafly describes as "one of the most dramatic job booms in recent history."

State-by-state revenues generated through taxes on cannabis sales. Source: Forbes

And if you look at the tax revenue generated from cannabis sales, the United States has already raked in over $6 billion in total – money that would otherwise have simply circulated around the black market.

When you consider the health benefits that medicinal marijuana provides for issues such as epilepsy and cancer treatment, the fact that the cannabis industry is more gender-equal than most others and the amount of product which can be made from CBD, it can seem baffling that cannabis was ever illegal to begin with.

However, there are still hundreds of thousands of people who remain imprisoned for possession, caught in the crossfire of a war on what we now know as medicine. Even those offenders who receive a simple conviction for possession can find their capacity for employment affected later down the line, as this non-violent crime then becomes a permanent part of their criminal record.

There are even cases, post-legalization, where individuals have had their housing applications rejected on the basis of their medicinal marijuana use.

Put simply, the War on Drugs has failed.

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Turn Over a New Leaf

The Turn Over A New Leaf program is an initiative which acknowledges the failure of the War on Drugs and seeks to fix it. The program began in February and has since wiped marijuana convictions off of the criminal records of 84 people. This number, while small, still represents 84 people who now have no concerns when applying for a house or certain jobs.

State representatives estimate a total 13,000 people would be eligible for the program, and of that number, only 323 people have currently applied. This is likely due to the newness of the campaign and a lack of awareness around it, which will undoubtedly change over time.

The program not only highlights the immense failure of the War on Drugs in America, but also its issues with mass incarceration. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rates in the world, with a disproportionate amount of African Americans and Hispanics comprising that figure.

"A lot of people have been affected by their old marijuana convictions, and it hurts them in many ways," says . "This is not a violent crime. They did not murder or assault anyone, and should be allowed to have a second chance."

– Eric Escudero, Communications Director for Excise and Licenses under the TONL program

 

This is where the legalization of cannabis becomes somewhat of a racial issue. Statistics show that African Americans are eight times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white individuals, despite having similar rates of usage.

While the reason for this disparity in convictions is unclear, it does suggest that expunging the records of those with non-violent cannabis convictions will ultimately benefit African Americans at a disproportionate rate compared to other demographics, potentially causing the racial wealth gap to narrow. Couple this with the high amount of females found in the cannabis industry, and it's clear that cannabis has the potential to become an equalizing force in society.

The program is already showing significant results for people like Dane Jordan, who was convicted of marijuana cultivation 13 years ago. Jordan wanted to become a psychologist, but his criminal record discouraged him from pursuing it. Jordan stated that his marijuana conviction "basically destroyed [his] whole life."

Jordan has since had his record cleared, and is no longer burdened by his past actions.

Though not everyone is fortunate enough to benefit from the Turn Over a New Leaf Program. The TONL program only exists in Denver, and therefore only those with crimes committed in Denver can have their records expunged.

While there are others working to clear the records of those convicted of drug crimes. A southern Californian group known as NDICA runs expungement clinics which are designed to help convicted felons clear their criminal records.

To date, the group has cleared over 600 drug-related offenses from the records of 318 people.

And San Francisco has taken this tact to the next level. The state recently introduced Proposition 64, which will involve the review, recall and resentencing of more than 5,000 marijuana convictions. The new program seeks to reduce recidivism by removing the barriers to employment and housing that can accompany marijuana convictions.

The District Attorney for San Francisco, George Gascón, stated that expunging the records was the "morally right thing to do," given the stark contrast in sentencing between white and black individuals. According to NPR, in 2010 and 2011 African-Americans comprised half of all marijuana related arrests in the state, despite only representing 6 percent of the population.

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Changing Times 

This reversal of sentencing when it comes to cannabis crimes is not only practical and helpful, but also represents a shifting mentality towards drug use.

Abby Moffitt, an attorney for marijuana law firm Corry & Associates states that  "having your records sealed reminds you that you're not a criminal and you're not wrong."

"I'm hoping the program will allow people to restore their self-esteem and confidence, and make them have a better view of themselves."

The Turn Over a New Leaf program is just a slither of the changes that we may see upon further marijuana legalization. As we've mentioned before, virtually every 2020 Democratic candidate for the presidential election is in favor of legalizing cannabis.

In fact, New Jersey Senator Corey Booker introduced new legislation to make cannabis legal on the federal level and expunge non-violent cannabis charges nationwide. The bill is titled The Marijuana Justice Act of 2019 and was introduced to congress on February 28th.

The bill has been supported by many other democratic senators, most notably Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and would see that cannabis federally removed from the list of controlled substances.

Corey Booker spoke of the necessity of passing the act when introducing it to congress, as he cited the harm caused by the illegal nature of the drug.

"The Marijuana Justice Act seeks to reverse decades of this unfair, unjust, and failed policy by removing marijuana from the list of controlled substances and making it legal at the federal level," Booker said.

"But it's not enough to simply decriminalize marijuana. We must also repair the damage caused by reinvesting in those communities that have been most harmed by the War on Drugs. And we must expunge the records of those who have served their time."

"The end we seek is not just legalization, it's justice."

Frankly, we couldn't agree with him more. Nobody should be chained to the crimes of their past if those actions are no longer criminal today. Cannabis is becoming increasingly legal worldwide and we are only continuing to see the benefits. More jobs, more tax revenue, better access to cannabis-based medicines, less criminals and less restrictions on how individuals choose to enjoy themselves.

Slowly but surely, the shackles surrounding cannabis are coming off.

Louis O'Neill
Louis O'Neill

Louis is a writer based in Sydney with a focus on social and political issues. Having interviewed local politicians and entrepreneurs, Louis now focuses on cannabis culture, legislation & reform.

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