Two people — a white woman and a black man — reflect on their own arrests for marijuana charges when they were 19, and walk us through how those convictions continue to affect their careers and lives today. Through interwoven stories, we put their experiences in the larger context of the growing movement to clear low-level marijuana convictions.
Ann-Marie: Just a quick warning, there is some adult language in this episode. Sorry Mom.
Ann-Marie: From Colorado Public Radio PRX, this is On Something.
Casey: It must have been 10:00 or 10:30 at night.
Ann-Marie: It was a Friday night in Denver, 2009. 19-year old [Casey Denolve 00:00:27] was chilling in her apartment.
Casey: It was an odd time to get a knock at the door. I was already in my PJs, laying on my couch, just kicking back, watching TV, and the knock on the door. And I kind of didn’t think anything of it at first, ’till the knock got louder. Then I kind of get on edge. Definitely on edge.
Ann-Marie: Casey waited. She listened.
Casey: So the next thing that happened, was there was a knock on my window, which is on the opposite side of the apartment as my front door. And basically my window looked right down into my living room where I was laying on my couch. So now my heart is just racing, I have no idea what’s going on. Then there’s another knock on the door, at which point I finally do go and open the door to see what’s going on, see who’s there.
Casey: Once I opened the door there’s three narcotics officers at my door. At that point they literally pushed me out of the way and came into my apartment.
Ann-Marie: This is On Something. Stories of life after legalization. I’m [Ann-Marie Awad 00:01:37]. On this podcast we tell stories about people and weed. You know, pot, ganja, grass, cannabis. Whatever you want to call it. And how it’s spurring all of these cultural, political and legal changes across the country.
Ann-Marie: In 2012 Colorado voters approved legalization. Recreational sales wouldn’t start for another two years, but by the end of 2012, possession or use of weed was no longer a crime. So, now the law of the land says I can go out and buy it, consume it in my own home, all legal. But 10 years ago, only medical marijuana was legal in Colorado, and that meant that only certain people had a right to possess it, grow it, have it, et cetera. If you didn’t have a prescription, that meant that you could get busted. And if you got busted, then that probably means that you’re still paying the price today. Like Casey. Denver narcotics officers showed up at her door and they pushed their way inside. The next few moments would affect her for years, but she didn’t know it then.
Casey: They started to walk into my bedroom and I said, “Hey, stop!” They didn’t stop and at that point they found my little tiny grow in my bedroom.
Ann-Marie: What did that grow look like?
Casey: Oh god, it was tiny! It was honestly really pitiful, it was very much a beginner, just under little fluorescent lights. Just a little closet grow. It was kind of just a curiosity and just, I was young and I was just exploring.
Ann-Marie: She laughs about it now, but that night 10 years ago, she didn’t find it so funny. The cops told her that they were following up on an anonymous tip. Someone had complained, they said, about the smell of weed coming from her apartment. And she hadn’t even been smoking that night. But there was a little baggie of weed on her coffee table, in full view of the window where the cops could see it. And now she was under arrest.
Casey: Scared, terrified. I know I was shaking. I know I was in tears, I was crying. I was just upset, and stressed out.
Ann-Marie: Casey wasn’t a dealer. She just had kind of a geeky interest in learning how to grow weed for herself and her boyfriend, and sometimes she smoked with her neighbors. Since she was 19, it’s not like every single part of this would be legal today, because she was under age, but the consequences might not have been so severe.
Casey: And it was so crazy, because even the narcotics officers, once they kind of did a quick search of the house and realized how small the issue really was, one of the guys said he was a 10-year veteran as a narcotics officer, he said, I am so sorry. He apologized to me.
Casey: Yes. He said, “This is the smallest operation we’ve ever busted anon.” And he said, “I have no choice but to arrest you right now.” He said, “I wish I didn’t have to, there’s no proof of distribution or anything like that,” but you know, this was just the procedure that they had to follow at this point.
Michael: It was me and the guys, we hopped in the car. Ten years ago, we’re having a good time.
Ann-Marie: [Michael Diaz Rivera 00:05:00] is talking about a night in 2005, in Colorado Springs. Like Casey, he was 19 years old at the time. He was in the driver’s seat. It was a Friday night or a Saturday night. He doesn’t remember where they were going, but he and his friends were going out. All he remembers is that the night had barely started, and then it was over.
Michael: Next thing we know, the cops are behind us and first it’s like, “Oh crap! The cops are here.” We stopped and we noticed not only are the cops behind us, lights on, but they got their guns drawn and they are here for some action.
Michael: Once I noticed the guns, I was scared, thinking we were going to get shot. Who knows what was going to happen. That’s what I can really remember, that frightening feeling of, these people really have a gun pointed at me.
Ann-Marie: The cops wanted to search the car. Michael said no. In the backpack in the trunk there were like two sandwich baggies of weed, altogether about a quarter of an ounce. He was not a lawyer, but to paraphrase Jay-Z, he knew they couldn’t search his shed.
Ann-Marie: Eventually the officers send Michael’s friends home, but they keep Michael, because he’s the driver. Michael waited and waited. Then, for some reason that Michael never really understood, the cops told him that they had probable cause to search his car.
Michael: The moment that they popped the trunk, was when my heart sunk. Once they found the backpack, the little celebration that they had of, “Hey, we found some weed,” and like talking to each other. And they were like, “Hey, we found something.” So, at that point-
Ann-Marie: Celebration, huh?
Michael: Yep. Then I was handcuffed and lectured, et cetera.
Ann-Marie: So here we have two arrests for weed. They’re pretty similar cases with some differences we will get into later on. But here’s what they had in common, they both took place before recreational weed was legalized in Colorado in 2012. And, don’t forget, Colorado was one of the first states to legalize recreational weed. This is what we are talking about on today’s episode. Casey, Michael and the thousands of other people in this country, suffering from weed’s legal hangover.
Ann-Marie: People who have carried the weight of these old marijuana convictions into this new age of legalization, and who may be wondering why they’re still on the wrong side of the law, even though the law has changed.
Casey: I thought my future was gone. And I was going to school for criminal justice. I was already a year in, so I had an idea exactly of what a felony could entail. That could entail jail time. I didn’t wasn’t to go to jail for any longer than I had already been there.
Ann-Marie: Casey spent the whole weekend in jail after her arrest. One of her cellmates was arrested for dealing cocaine, another one was arrested for assaulting a cop. On Monday morning she walked into court and she was charged with felony marijuana cultivation.
Casey: I went home and walked into my apartment, and it was the same way it had been left by the officers. It was halfway torn apart. There was dirt and soil all over the ground from them cutting down my plants, and it was just a mess. And to sit there and think that, you know, “Now I have to clean up this mess of my apartment.” But I’m like, now I’m like, “I’m going to have to clean up this mess of my life.” Like, this was just the beginning.
Michael: It was real late, probably 1:00, 2:00 in the morning.
Ann-Marie: So are you waking her up when you call?
Ann-Marie: I mean so you’re dialing the number-
Ann-Marie: How are you feeling?
Michael: Heartbroken. Heartbroken, just, “I’m going to bring more disappointment to my mom.” The Michel Diaz Rivera that she’s been trying to raise to be successful, had just made some horrible decisions that’s going to affect the chances at success. And so I ended up taking a plea, and becoming a felon for marijuana possession at the age of 19.
Ann-Marie: So, in high school, before he got busted, Michael was essentially homeless. He moved out of his mother’s house and he started couch surfing with friends all over Colorado Springs. At the time of his arrest, he was already a pretty experienced weed dealer.
Michael: My friends were smoking weed. I couldn’t afford it, to be honest, and I needed a way to pay for it. And also, I needed a way to pay my bills. So, it became a hustle.
Ann-Marie: One of a few hustles.
Michael: I was actually working at Taco Bell at the time. Even that worked out for me. In times that I’d be working drive-through and somebody needed a sack, I could just have them come through the drive-through and pick up.
Ann-Marie: I can picture this so vividly. With like a Giant Baja Blast.
Michael: Exactly. Just toss the little package in their bag, and they’re on their way.
Ann-Marie: Back then Michael says he had a sort of persona that he called Money Mike. He’s long since left this guy behind and Michael’s a very different guy today, but it’s hard to understand his story if we don’t introduce you to the likes of Money Mike.
Michael: Money Mike was like the cool guy. All of the qualities that I thought a man needed, I pretended to be. So like Money Mike was the funny guy, got money, got the girls, et cetera.
Ann-Marie: And Money Mike was the guy that ended up with the felony conviction for marijuana possession. He had to pay $2000 in restitution, he had to do work release, all of that stuff. But none of that seemed as bad as the conviction itself, which would follow him into the future, long after he had outgrown Money Mike.
Ann-Marie: Let’s get back to Casey for a moment. She pleaded her felony down to a misdemeanor, but even that low level of conviction damaged her career, before she even had a career.
Casey: Gosh, I remember it was, the interviews were going so well, but it almost ended up like I was talking to friends at this point. We were getting along so well, me and the interviewers. And they were super enthusiastic to have somebody who did super well in school and was really passionate about being with their company or their organization. And we got to the point, we were just kind of chit-chatting about, “What are your hobbies, what do you like to do, what kind of music do you like?” It was, they already knew that I’d be a good fit for the company.
Casey: And then, so on the initial application they ask if you have any prior convictions, and so of course I had to disclose my situation with that. At the end of the interview they’re kind of looking over this application and they’re like, “Oh, wait, what is your conviction?” And so I explain to them everything that happened and-
Ann-Marie: Wait, slow this down for me a second. So they say, “What is your conviction?”
Casey: “What are you convicted for?”
Ann-Marie: How does it feel to hear that question?
Casey: Oh, your heart drops for sure. I mean I knew they were going to find out anyways.
Ann-Marie: Were you prepared, like did you have an answer prepared for this if it came up?
Casey: Not really. The most I prepared for it was, since I’d been through the system, I think I’m more capable of helping somebody else who’s in the system, because I know how to succeed and I know how to be compliant.
Ann-Marie: So you were trying to kind of make that on-the-job experience a little bit-
Ann-Marie: I mean that’s kind of smart. Yeah.
Casey: That was the only thing I could think of to like dress it up a little bit and maybe hopefully they’d overlook it.
Ann-Marie: But they didn’t overlook it.
Casey: I was so discouraged from those first three interviews, that once would get a call back on any of these jobs that I applied to , I would just ask them right away, I wouldn’t even-
Casey: … go to the interview. Yeah. Once they called me back, I would tell them that I do have a misdemeanor marijuana conviction, and if they’re able to hire me. And all of them said no.
Ann-Marie: Which meant Casey needed a new plan. What she did next and Michael’s path forward, after this break.
Michael: Initially I just went there for the girls, and I wanted to figure it out.
Ann-Marie: After he paid his fine and fulfilled his work release requirements, Michael went to community college. But he didn’t really know what he was doing there. Until he got paired up with a “multi-cultural retention specialist.” That’s a mouthful.
Michael: Anyways, I had this big wallet chain. It was super gigantic. Like I’d be in class knocking into computers with it, et cetera. And so I go to meet with this mentor, and right in that moment he’s like, “Give me your chain. If you want to be serious about this work, give up your chain.” And so I gave him that chain, then I went home and thought how was I going to break into his office to get my chain back. So, yeah.
Ann-Marie: Oh man, so not receptive at all.
Michael: Not at all.
Ann-Marie: Not at first. But this mentor of Michael’s gradually turned him around. Michael started to look at himself differently and he started speaking to high school and middle school classes around this time, about his experience in the criminal justice system. He liked it. He liked it so much that he realized he wanted to pursue a career working with kids. And this big turning point happened at his first academic conference in Texas.
Michael: It was cool for me to see so many black students and brown students just dressed to impress. I had grown up and I didn’t see that too often. Most of my friends are black and brown, but not a lot of us spent a lot of time talking about our future goals and stuff. And for me, growing up in Colorado Springs, I wasn’t, like I found myself in black spaces, but never that heavily black.
Ann-Marie: Can you, for somebody who’s never been to Colorado Springs, I mean I’ve been, but like if somebody’s listening to this and they’ve never been, just like paint a picture for me of what that is like in terms of the white people.
Michael: Yeah, so I will say that Colorado Springs is majority white, Colorado is majority white. But Colorado Springs is super conservative, super religious and that affects the way that a lot of people move.
Ann-Marie: So, this young black man from Colorado Springs went to Texas, to this conference. Everywhere he looked he saw goals. He saw successful black and brown people leading and succeeding. And then he returned to Colorado Springs.
Michael: So, I came back from that conference on fire, ready to change, First thing I do, is go to my friend’s house. We’re smoking, but I’m like, “Yo, I seen some people that are ready to change the world. There are people like us that are doing big things, and we got to do more than this.”
Michael: And my friends, honestly, they weren’t totally receptive to it.
Ann-Marie: They were like, “Calm down.”
Michael: Yeah, exactly. Like. “What, you just heard a couple speak and now you’re just flipping the whole world.”
Ann-Marie: So, Michael had this fire lit under him. But, because of his felony conviction, he ran into roadblocks, with housing, for example.
Michael: I moved to Denver, and I realized that a lot of these apartment buildings have corporate owners. And these corporations, most times, do not accept any felon in their properties. Whether it’s a marijuana felony or it is something even worse. Felony, period, they are not accepting you. So that is really disheartening, applying for housing, being honest about my background, and being turned down.
Ann-Marie: Still, he managed to find a place and finish a four-year degree. While working on that degree, he found activism. He learned about the War on Drugs, and how it disproportionately affects black men like himself. And while he was learning about all of this, he was also looking for a job. And he got one, in a school as a pera, basically a teacher’s assistant.
Michael: So, I was hired as the pera, I was open about my felony, and then I got the job. Two days after starting, the assistant principal pulled me out, we had a conversation to find out that they actually had to take my job away from me because it doesn’t match protocol.
Ann-Marie: Oh my god. That sounds to me like a gut punch almost.
Michael: Oh, it was. I thought I was a professional now, I was out of college, I thought I had done what I needed to pay back my debt to society, but still society wasn’t trying to allow me to where I wanted to be. It’s super frustrating, but I like to follow Dory’s advice from Finding Nemo, “Just keep swimming.” When things get in the way, you’ve just got to keep going.
Ann-Marie: All of this trouble for Michael and Casey occurred in this unusual window of weed legality in Colorado. Basically their arrests and convictions happened after medical marijuana became legal in 2000, but before the arrival of legal recreational marijuana, in 2014. In 2010 there happened to be one industry that did not have a problem with Casey’s misdemeanor pot conviction. Guess which one.
Casey: It felt so liberating, that here I am, I just went through all of this probation, all of this hassle for marijuana, and here I am purchasing it legally, selling it legally, to people that it’s actually helping. Again, it just turned my life right back upside down.
Ann-Marie: Casey got a job as a bud tender in a medical marijuana dispensary. According to current law the state will overlook certain low level misdemeanor pot convictions when it comes to getting license to work in the industry.
Casey: I’ve always called it a blessing in disguise, because back then in 2010 all the dispensaries were medical, and so here I am with cancer patients and aids patients and severe pain patients, and I’m helping them, which was really touching. There couldn’t have been anything more rewarding than helping out cancer patients, you know, to be able to eat and sleep.
Ann-Marie: Casey may have liked this line of work, but she had other ambitions too. And to get the jobs that she wanted, she felt she needed a way to keep her potential employers from knowing about that misdemeanor. There’s only one way to do that in Colorado right now, and it’s called sealing a record.
Casey: The cost of sealing a record is upwards of $500 or $800. It was just a ridiculous expense, which was where research ended. I didn’t think $800 was even worth it. I’d honestly rather keep that badge of honor, of having a conviction on my record, than spend $800 to seal a misdemeanor marijuana charge.
Ann-Marie: Sealing basically makes a criminal conviction invisible to the public, but not to police or anyone who gets a court order to unseal it. Right now it’s the only option available under Colorado law. In recent years clinics have popped up in Denver to help people seal their records, and sometimes there will be sponsors covering all of those legal costs. last year Michael walked into one of those clinics.
Michael: I was just like, “Let’s see what we can do. If we can get it off my record, this will be great, and this will open up some opportunities for me. But also, if it doesn’t, I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.”
Ann-Marie: He also wanted to explore working in the marijuana industry, but he found out pretty quickly that no one at this clinic can really help him. He’s had a felony on his record, which is from now unsealable, and the fact that it’s a controlled substances felony, disqualified him from working in the marijuana business. He sees this as a racial injustice.
Michael: I had sold weed to survive, and now these rich white guys that hadn’t lived the same life that I did, were able to come in and really capitalize off marijuana.
Kaban: I think it was Jimmy Carter who said, “The penalties for using a drug should never be more harmful than the use of the drug itself.” But unfortunately that’s exactly what the War on Drugs has created, is a lot of harm within these communities for people using a drug, either to survive through low level distribution, or to relax.
Ann-Marie: [Kaban Kaledbari 00:22:21] is the board chair of the Denver-based Minority Cannabis Business Association. Basically it’s a group that aims to get more people of color working in the cannabis industry. He knows that he could easily have suffered the same fate as Casey and Michael.
Kaban: I got caught driving, while consuming cannabis. The police officer let me go. He made me stomp the weed into the pavement, and let me go. I got busted with cannabis driving up to a concert in Omaha, and ended up getting a citation for it, and after a conversation with my mom, it got dropped. So, I’ve just been so fortunate, and why these happened, I don’t think it matters as much as the fact that they did happen.
Ann-Marie: Aside from marijuana advocacy, Kaledbari owns a handful of local businesses in Denver, including a pizz chain, a magazine and a marijuana business consulting firm. You can say he’s doing pretty well for himself.
Kaban: If those had remained on my criminal record, how would my life be different? I would be in a very different place right now.
Ann-Marie: Kaban is disappointed in Colorado’s current marijuana laws. Like that quirk of the law that allows somebody like Casey to work in the marijuana industry with a misdemeanor conviction, but bars people with felony convictions like Michael.
Ann-Marie: Another reason for his disappointment in Colorado, in 2016 when California legalized recreational marijuana, they simultaneously got rid of a bunch of marijuana-related crimes retroactively. And by doing so, it opened up a lot more avenues to have criminal charges reduced or even wiped off your record completely. And it’s the responsibility of the state to go through the whole legal song and dance to at get it done. So if Casey and Michael lived in California, they would just have to fill out a petition and the courts would do the rest. They could both be eligible to have their charges reduced or dismissed or just erased altogether. It’s likely they would no longer be facing all of these hassles for marijuana crimes when they were 19 years old. Crimes that have not been crimes for years now.
Ann-Marie: It was Kaledbari’s group that was running the legal clinic that couldn’t help Michael. Kaledbari explains the qualitative difference between sealing a record and expunging a record in Colorado. Meanings vary in other states.
Kaban: So we’re talking about expungement, and it’s an important distinction, expungement and record sealing, because record sealing doesn’t remove it, this criminal penalty, this infraction, this arrest record, from folks’ permanent record. It’s still very much there, it’s still available to law enforcement.
Ann-Marie: Kaledbari is one of a handful pushing for changes to Colorado’s laws, that would make it easier for folks like Casey and Michael to expunge their records.
Ann-Marie: In the meantime Casey is actually on track to make that misdemeanor conviction disappear. Earlier this year Denver created a program called Turn Over a New Leaf. It simplifies the sealing process and waives all of those legal fees involved. It’s not quite California, and it’s pretty limited. But Casey was able to qualify. And didn’t end up having to pay a dime. And now, she’s planning for the future. Her conviction is still in the process of being sealed, but even starting that process is huge. She recently moved to the mountains, which was a long-time goal of hers. And she’s already got steady work at a bank. She’s also thinking about going back to school, but not for criminal justice this time.
Kaban: I would honestly rather study like geology or get into the forestry service or be a park ranger, or something super outdoorsy, and kind of go to school for that.
Ann-Marie: Do you want to get as far away from a courtroom as possible?
Kaban: Yes, basically, yes.
Ann-Marie: Got you.
Kaban: I find a lot more happiness out there, so…
Ann-Marie: I can understand that.
Ann-Marie: And Michael still has that felony conviction. But it didn’t stop him from finding his current job, which he loves.
Kaban: So now I’m a youth organizer, talking to the youth about things like identity, culture, politics, navigating the school system, breaking the cycle, making the right choices.
Ann-Marie: What cycle is that?
Kaban: The cycle of poverty, the cycle of oppression, the cycle of toxic masculinity. There’s a couple of cycles that we find ourselves in.
Ann-Marie: And he says the conviction doesn’t come up much these days. But it might.
Kaban: My daughter is three months, so now I’m thinking of like future for the first time-
Ann-Marie: That’s right.
Kaban: … and how am I going to set her up for success. So I would like to buy a house in the future, and I’m not sure how that marijuana felony may come to bite me or not.
Kaban: Hopefully not, but we shall see.
Speaker 5: Excuse me. We first have House Bill 1275, Senate Bill 201, House Bill 1304, Senate Bill 26…
Ann-Marie: Recently the Colorado legislature has been hearing stories like Michael’s and Casey’s. And a Bill to increase eligibility for sealing was taken up.
Speaker 5: So 1275, in short, repeals and re-enacts certain provisions of the record sealing statutes in Colorado. Before diving into the minutiae…
Ann-Marie: And it passed. It doesn’t go as far as California did in automatically expunging the records for weed convictions, but it’ll make the process of sealing criminal record easier and more accessible to people like Michael and Casey.
Speaker 6: I do think that the Bill allows for people in this community to seek recourse and not have a permanent stamp for the rest of their life.
Ann-Marie: Colorado was one of the first states out of the gate to legalize recreational marijuana. But it’s still trailing other legal states on this particular facet of legalization. All the states that are legalizing, they’re going to have to deal with this eventually, right? When we all vote to reverse decades of drug enforcement policy, we don’t do it in a void. And increasingly, the conversation about legalization seems to be largely moving away from whether or not we should legalize, to how we should legalize. And how do we make up for the human cost of what came before?
Ann-Marie: On Something is a labor of love. Reported and written by me, Ann-Marie Awad. Produced and mixed by Brad Turner, [Rebecca Rombert 00:29:24] and John [Pinnel 00:29:25]. Our editor is Curtis Fox, our digital Wizard is Kim Winn. Music by Brad Turner and Daniel [Mescher 00:29:33]. Our executive producers are Rachel [Estebrook 00:29:36] and Kevin Dale.
Ann-Marie: Subscribe to On Something in Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you heard today, please review and share all across the land. This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. This podcast was also made possible by Colorado Public Radio members. Learn about supporting Colorado Public Radio at CPR.org.
Ann-Marie: Support for this program comes from my mom who is eagerly awaiting for me to pick another topic to focus my reporting career on. She’s like, “Didn’t you used to cover education? I bet they need a podcast somewhere about education.”