Coloradans Can Challenge Sentences for Marijuana Offenses That Are No Longer Crimes


Yesterday a Colorado appeals court ruled that Amendment 64, that state's marijuana legalization initiative, applies retroactively to people convicted of minor cannabis offenses. The case involved a woman who was sentenced to four years of probation in 2011 after she was caught with small amounts of marijuana, marijuana concentrate, and methamphetamine. After Amendment 64 passed, she appealed the marijuana convictions, noting that the initiative had eliminated criminal penalties for adults 21 or older who possess an ounce or less of marijuana (defined to include marijuana concentrate). The Colorado Court of Appeals agreed that she was entitled to postconviction relief, citing a statutory provision that allows "retroactive application of [a] changed legal standard…in the interests of justice" when "there has been significant change in the law."

In 1978, for example, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that a marijuana dealer who received a sentence of five to 12 years was entitled to a shorter term because the legislature subsequently reduced the maximum penalty for his offense to one year. "This rule applies to any case before final judgment," the court said. Hence marijuana offenders who have appealed their convictions or sentences should be eligible for relief under Amendment 64 if they possessed no more than an ounce or grew no more than six plants, which is also no longer a crime under state law.

Possessing less than an ounce of buds was a "petty offense" punishable by a $100 fine prior to Amendment 64. But possessing any amount of marijuana concentrate was a felony, and so was cultivating any number of plants. People convicted of those offenses could escape substantial penalties if their cases are still on appeal.