There has been little interest in a scheme that allows Denver residents to expunge criminal records for low-level marijuana convictions.

The city launched a scheme called the Turn Over a New Leaf program to great fanfare in January 2019, creating an expedited process for anyone seeking expungement. It is part of a multi-pronged approach to ensure that communities disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs can benefit from the legalization of marijuana.

Denver revealed that around 12,000 people could benefit from having their criminal convictions sealed. However, only 441 residents have thus far applied for expungement and just 79 of them were eligible.

So far only 48 cases have been vacated, dismissed, or resulted in a conviction being sealed.

Denver Department of Excise and Licenses Director Ashley Kilroy insists the city has worked hard to explain the benefits of the program and help residents apply. Her team has visited jails in a bid to whip up support, but there have not been many relevant applications thus far.

Many of the 441 applicants either fell outside of Denver’s jurisdiction or had convictions that were not actually considered low-level.

One obstacle for the city is that Colorado state law does not permit automatic expungements, so it must address each case individually, which can become expensive. Denver has hosted five free clinics offering free legal advice to those with low-level cannabis convictions at a cost of more than $25,000.

It has also invested in promoting the program through community outreach, media relations, and digital communications. Yet it is not giving up, and it will continue to target residents whose lives could be improved by their convictions being sealed.

“Having low-level marijuana convictions can have wide ramifications throughout an individual’s life,” said Kilroy. “It can negatively impact employment opportunities, educational opportunities, access to housing, other government benefits.”

Expunging minor cannabis-related convictions is a hot topic across the U.S. right now and many states and cities are exploring similar schemes in an effort to make amends for the effects of the so-called war on drugs. However, it could require a more innovative method to deliver the desired results.

Cook County in Illinois is using an algorithm to automatically expunge tens of thousands of old marijuana convictions, and that could end up becoming a strong template for the nation.

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