Pubdate: Fri, 14 Mar 2014
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2014 The New York Times Company
Author: Jack Healy


DENVER - A Colorado law that allows adults to legally possess and use 
marijuana may now allow some people found guilty of minor marijuana 
crimes to challenge their convictions in court, a state appeals court 
ruled on Thursday.

The decision by the Colorado Court of Appeals stemmed from a 2010 
drug case in which a woman from the mountains west of Denver was 
convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana and a concentrated 
form of the drug - both of which are now legal under a 2012 ballot 
measure approved by Colorado voters. Her lawyers argued that the 
legal landscape had shifted since she was charged and that her 
marijuana convictions should thus be thrown out.

The court agreed, saying that the legalization law, known as 
Amendment 64, could apply retroactively to minor drug offenses if 
people had already been appealing their convictions when the measure 
went into effect.

Marijuana advocates cheered the decision, calling it a sign that 
growing public support for legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana 
was beginning to resonate in legal circles. They said it could help 
dozens of people to successfully overturn convictions for possessing 
less than an ounce of marijuana concentrate or for growing six or 
fewer marijuana plants in their homes - acts that were once illegal, 
but that are now allowed for adults 21 and over.

"The fact that a court in Colorado, one of the first two states to do 
this, came to this conclusion will hopefully have some impact on how 
courts in other places look at this," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive 
director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports overhauling drug laws.

Still, the scope of the ruling is likely to be limited. It applies 
only to small amounts of marijuana that were made legal under 
Amendment 64, and it does not appear to open the floodgates to allow 
people to expunge decades-old marijuana convictions.

As more states pursue measures to legalize or decriminalize 
marijuana, the police, prosecutors and courts are being forced to 
confront thorny questions about how to handle thousands of arrests 
and criminal cases in light of the drug's shifting legal status. 
Should prosecutors pursue existing marijuana cases once the drug is 
legalized? Do people convicted of possession still have to pay their 
fines? Do people have to admit old marijuana convictions as part of a 
background check?

Shortly after Colorado voters approved Amendment 64, prosecutors in 
Denver, Boulder and other parts of the state decided to drop pending 
marijuana cases that were legalized under the new law.

The case at the center of Thursday's appeals court decision began in 
March 2010, when Brandi Jessica Russell and her husband took their 
infant son to a hospital in Granby. Doctors found a fracture on the 
baby's leg, grew suspicious about the injury and the parents' 
behavior, and, suspecting abuse, alerted the authorities, according 
to the court's ruling. The police found small amounts of 
methamphetamine, marijuana and drug paraphernalia in the couple's 
home, and Ms. Russell was charged with child abuse and several drug charges.

A jury acquitted her of abuse in 2011 but found her guilty of 
possessing methamphetamine and marijuana. The court upheld her 
methamphetamine conviction.

Ms. Russell's lawyer, Brian Emeson, said the court's move to throw 
out the marijuana convictions was "grounded in the interests of justice."

"There's certainly a tidal wave changing the attitudes of people," 
Mr. Emeson said, "Now you're seeing it in law enforcement and the judiciary."
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