Colorado court gives small-time drug offenders a break

A marijuana plant flourishes under grow lights at a warehouse in Denver on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2010. More than 40 Colorado jurisdictions considering local rules on medical marijuana this election. Thanks to a new state law allowing local governments more leeway in regulating pot, voters across the state will consider proposed bans on dispensaries or commercial pot-growing operations. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)
A marijuana plant flourishes under grow lights at a warehouse in Denver on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2010. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

Small-time drug offenders in Colorado could be off the hook, thanks to a court ruling Thursday.

They have Brandi Jessica Russell to thank, and a Colorado law allowing adults to possess small amounts of pot for personal use.

She was convicted in 2011 by a trial court for possessing less than an ounce of pot. The offense ceased to exist 20 months later, after Colorado voters approved Amendment 64.

The amendment made it legal for adults 21 and over to grow up to six marijuana plants in their homes and to possess up to an ounce of pot, or marijuana concentrate, for personal use.

Russell’s lawyers argued that her conviction should be thrown out because the law had changed since she was charged with the crime.

Even though Amendment 64 didn’t explicitly apply retroactively, a three-judge panel of the Colorado Court of Appeals unanimously agreed on Thursday.

As a general rule, Colorado courts don’t read laws to apply retroactively unless it’s clear they were intended to.

But in Colorado, the principle that defendants should benefit retroactively from significant changes in the law overrides the presumption that laws only apply going forward, the panel said.

“Realistically, [the ruling] will have a minimal impact because it only deals with defendants who were convicted at trial and whose appeals were pending when the new law went into effect,” Colorado defense attorney Mark Johnson told Reuters.

In a statement, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers also minimized the impact of the decision. “[P]ossession of an ounce or less of marijuana was already a petty offense subject to a $100 fine [before Amendment 64 was passed]….It is highly unlikely that there is anyone incarcerated at this time strictly for possession of marijuana concentrate of less than one ounce.”  Suthers said his office would likely appeal the ruling because of possible implications on other non-marijuana cases. 

Nonetheless, Marijuana advocates cheered the decision. “The fact that a court in Colorado, one of the first two states to [legalize pot for recreational use], came to this conclusion will hopefully have some impact on how courts in other places look at this,” Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told the New York Times.

Gail Sullivan covers business for the Morning Mix blog.
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