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After Sluggish Start, Boulder, Denver Leaders Reevaluate Efforts To Purge Pot Convictions

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Ben Simo/Flickr
Denver City and County Building

Two government programs designed to wipe clean minor marijuana convictions in Denver and Boulder are reporting slower-than-expected turnouts, prompting organizers to step up their attempts to engage eligible residents.

Boulder County's Moving On From Marijuana and Denver's Turn Over A New Leaf programs invite residents with low-level marijuana offenses prior to 2012 — the year recreational pot became legal — to apply to have their records permanently cleared and sealed.

Both efforts were announced last fall.

At the time, leaders guessed thousands of offenses, including small drug possession cases, could qualify for expungement. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said the opportunity would especially help low-income families and communities of color disproportionately hurt by marijuana prohibition.

But so far, the numbers are nowhere near those targets.

Denver has processed 176 total applications. Of those, just 38 qualified. Boulder has seen 21 applicants, nine of which qualified. Officials with the programs confirmed the totals in emails on Feb. 28.

Boulder assistant district attorney Ken Kupfner said he wasn't sure what was causing the holdup, but that trust could be a factor.

"I think despite our efforts to get the word out to everybody, there is still some hesitation and reluctance to just show up here to talk to a (prosecutor) about a marijuana case," Kupfner said.

The district attorney's office held two free workshops in January. Despite the low turnout, Kupfner said a "significant" number have since called or emailed to see if they qualify.

"Having people be able to reach out at their convenience and not try and show up at a scheduled time seems to be every bit as good as having the clinics where they can come in at a set time," he said.

Kupfner added that he's also meeting one-on-one with local defense attorneys to educate them about the process, and hopefully identify more clients who might qualify.

Word-of-mouth between participants and their friends and family could also help, he said.

Denver's program, which officially launched in early February, has seen slightly higher turnout than Boulder's.

Eric Escudero, spokesman for the Turn Over A New Leaf Program, said the team was pleased with its progress thus far — even though the program has turned away a majority of applicants.

"The majority who did not qualify were because they were convicted of a non-marijuana crime such as possession of a different drug, or were not eligible because their conviction was in a different city than Denver," Escudero said.

Those who have qualified have benefited greatly, he said, adding the oldest conviction cleared was from 45 years ago.

"We've heard some great stories," Escudero said. "All of them tell us it's like taking a monkey off their back."

Despite the wins, Escudero said thousands of eligible Denver residents still haven't reached out. However, he's not giving up.

"We're going to do everything we can to clear as many people as possible," he said.

To reach more potential participants, Turn Over A New Leaf has formed new partnerships with marijuana industry groups, a cannabis PR firm and Denver dispensaries.

"One dispensary even had a digital board just flashing the (program's) flyer all day long so people can see it," Escudero said.

Since Denver and Boulder's efforts are so similar, Escudero and Kupfner said their teams have been communicating with each other about what is and isn’t working.

For now, Boulder isn't planning any more in-person workshops, Kupfner said. Rather, the team is hoping eligible applicants reach out online or by calling the district attorney's office.

"If it's someone having a collateral consequence or having their life impacted in a negative way — whatever that might be — those ones I would really like to make sure get the relief," he said.

Denver has two more in-person workshops planned where volunteer lawyers will help attendees through the application process.

"Until there's state action that overturns everyone'’s conviction, it's up to cities to take action," Escudero said. "And we're not waiting around for legislation to get passed."

Upcoming Denver workshops:

Wednesday, March 6
5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Servicios de la Raza
3131 W. 14th Ave.
Denver, CO. 80204

Thursday, March 21
9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Cultivated Synergy
2901 Walnut St.
Denver, CO. 80205