In a controversial ruling on Thursday, Colorado judges are allowing some residents to have their marijuana possession convictions overturned after the state recently legalized the drug.
A three-judge panel of the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that Brandi Jessica Russell, who was convicted of possession of marijuana in 2011, was entitled to have her sentence overturned due to what they deemed a “signifiant change in the law.”
Back in December of 2012, Colorado’s Amendment 64 ruled that possession of an ounce or less of marijuana would no longer be punishable by law.
The new legal precedent is a glimmer of hope for many Colorado residents, as the state averaged 9,000 marijuana possession convictions every year before the law passed.
According to Russell’s attorney, the legalization of marijuana in the state and the decriminalization of owning small amounts of pot will allow the courts to focus on bigger issues.
“This ruling shows it would be wise for them to focus on more pressing matters,” the attorney said of the courts.
That certainly isn’t the case for now, however.
Colorado Attorney General John Suthers plans to appeal the ruling because Amendment 64 did not specifically state that it would impact rulings in the past.
“Well-established retroactivity law in Colorado indicates that statutory changes are prospective only unless the General Assemble or the voters have clearly indicated an intent to require such retroactive application,” Suthers’ statement read. “That was not the case with Amendment 64.”
Suthers also thinks it is a waste of the court’s efforts because the possession of marijuana was already considered a petty offense and he believes it would be “highly unlikely that there is anyone incarcerated at this time” simply because they possessed a small amount of marijuana.
Even Russell’s conviction, the same conviction that sparked this decision in the first place, was not solely for marijuana possession.
She was also charged with possession of one gram or less of methamphetamine and marijuana concentrate.
Despite Suthers’ opposition, the judges are standing behind their decision.
Although Amendment 64 didn’t specifically state that past convictions could be overturned, Colorado’s state law gives citizens the right to receive “post-conviction relief if there has been a significant change in the law.”
The panel of judges unanimously agreed that Amendment 64 fits that description.
The ruling will still not impact all residents who have marijuana possession convictions on their record.
“If I had a marijuana conviction 10 years ago, that doesn’t go away,” said Sean McAllister, a spokesman for the Colorado chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
McAllister also argues that many of the people with these types of convictions are not even likely to pursue an appeal.
He explained, “This is the right legal decision, but we are talking about people who are disproportionately poor, minorities, unlikely to pursue an appeal.”