Skip to contents
Opinion Columns

Opinion: Seeking fair and equal justice on drug policy

Colorado blazed a new trail in 2012 by becoming the first state in the country to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Pursuant to the prior law, people were prosecuted by the City Attorney’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Under the Turn Over a New Leaf program announced recently by the Denver mayor, the city attorney and my office, we are now providing those same people relief from that conviction history by wiping clean their criminal records for minor pot convictions.  

Beth McCann

The mayor and I agree that a prior marijuana possession conviction for a small amount of marijuana should not remain on a person’s record and cause harm now that such an act is legal in Denver.

The Turn Over a New Leaf program is a citywide effort which the mayor and I announced at the beginning of the year to vacate low-level marijuana criminal convictions that occurred in Denver before marijuana legalization.

Those individuals who were convicted in Denver of possessing small amounts of marijuana stand to benefit from this new program by requesting that their records be vacated and sealed.

We’re making it simple and easy and through collaboration with the presiding judge of Denver County Court, in most cases, the traditional court processing fees will be waived because it is the right thing to do in the interest of justice and fairness.

As a community, Denver has evolved in its acceptance of marijuana use. A pot conviction may not seem like a big deal in this day and age; however, such a conviction actually can have serious consequences.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

A marijuana conviction will show up on a background check for employment, college and graduate school applications and housing applications. It comes up when a person is applying to law school or wanting to pursue a career in law enforcement. Having a prior marijuana offense will certainly impact, if not prevent outright, a person’s ability to work in our state’s vibrant marijuana industry.

A minor conviction for something that is now legal should not prevent people from living their lives to the fullest and obtaining fundamental goals like housing and employment.

My belief is that it is only fair to support the ability of folks with these convictions to vacate and seal these records in a simple and painless way.

Turn Over a New Leaf is one program which allows us to take a look at how the criminal justice system interacts with people with drug usage issues.

In Denver, we are taking significant steps to change the way we address the intersection of the criminal justice system and drug and alcohol addictions. Denver Pretrial Services is working with our office and others to develop a quicker way to identify those arrested who have serious treatment needs.

Our specialized drug and sobriety courts give people the opportunity through support and encouragement to break their addictions. I support programs that emphasize treatment over incarceration such as specialized drug offender programs and drug court.  

Drug court is a good example of an alternative that works for those who respond well to a structured environment. As a specialty court, drug court is effective because people receive the support and treatment they need and can ultimately avoid a criminal record if they stay on the right path.

Our staff evaluates each person’s case and reviews the offense and person’s criminal history. We then seek a probation evaluation to determine a person’s addiction level, treatment needs taking into account prior treatment attempts and what the obstacles were to reaching sobriety.

The defendant must agree to intensive treatment including weekly or bi-weekly court appearances and reviews. He or she receives help with lifestyle issues which can include “wrap around” services like being referred to housing, Social Security and/or mental healthcare providers.

He or she then has the ability to enroll in in-patient programs or get started on medically assisted treatment programs. The process takes about 18-24 months, and once a person graduates from their program, the case is dismissed so there is no criminal history.

Our nation’s history of being “tough on crime” has resulted in too many people with addiction issues (as well as mental health and poverty issues) being incarcerated. It is past time that we reduce the number of people in jail and prison while simultaneously elevating public safety.

As a prosecutor interested in alternatives to prison, I am working with others to make Denver a city in which we give people a chance so that they don’t have a conviction that needs to be vacated and sealed later.

To do this successfully, it takes resources invested up front in identification and treatment programs rather than at the back end in our criminal justice system. It is time for this commitment in Denver.

Beth McCann was elected Denver District Attorney in 2016 and is the first woman to hold the office.  Twitter: @DenverDAsOffice.


We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable. This reporting depends on support from readers like you.