The more than 40,000 people currently sitting in prison for marijuana crimes in the U.S. received a sign of hope on Thursday, courtesy of a Colorado Court of Appeals ruling. The state's second highest judicial entity decided that those convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana in Colorado can appeal their sentences under the state's marijuana legalization law -- Amendment 64.
The United States is one of only 22 countries that don't guarantee what's called "retroactive ameliorative relief" in sentencing. When a law such as Colorado's legalizing marijuana is passed, those already convicted of marijuana crimes don't automatically have their sentences relaxed. Often, they receive no relief at all.
In most of the world, if a law is considered unjust or wasteful enough to be overturned, those facing criminal charges are granted the benefits of the law change. If weed is legalized, weed convicts see their sentences commuted.
The Colorado appeals court ruling could very well be a sign of the U.S. slowly coming into step with the rest of the free world -- at least as it relates to legalized marijuana ameliorative relief.
It will take more than just this one ruling, however, to erase decades of lingering "just say no" draconian marijuana punishments.
To start, the Colorado ruling gives marijuana prisoners the right to appeal their sentences. It doesn't guarantee they will actually see any relief. That will have to be decided on a case-by-case basis. The ruling also does not appear to apply to older convictions, where those who already served prison time could petition the court to expunge their records.
Of course, the ruling doesn't apply to other states. Washington, which also legalized marijuana in 2012, like Colorado, will have to make its own provisions for retroactive ameliorative relief.
Nor will the ruling have any bearing on the feds, who still consider marijuana to be illegal -- even in states like Colorado that have legalized or other states that have medical marijuana statutes. Earlier this month, Robert Duncan, a California medical marijuana dispensary worker, began a two-year sentence at Mendota Federal Correctional Institution near Fresno. Federal authorities raided Duncan's dispensary in 2011, and though he was simply an employee and neither owned nor directly profited from marijuana sales at his state-sanctioned dispensary, he was arrested, convicted and sentenced.
As the marijuana legalization movement gears up across the country, it's essential that those sympathetic to the cause keep stories like Duncan's in mind. After decades of overzealous marijuana enforcement, the road to a more enlightened weed policy is opening up. But we can't forget about those convicted under the old rules. The Colorado court decision is a good start, but if those convicted of marijuana crimes aren't accounted for in the legalization process, there's a good chance they never will be.