Can You Work in Colorado's Cannabis Industry: Reviewing New Licensing Laws

Since marijuana was legalized in 2014, the Colorado cannabis industry has grown exponentially, bringing in incredible revenue for the state, and expanding the job market for thousands of Colorado natives. Now, Colorado cannabis supports jobs for more than 44,000 people statewide, and this number is anticipated to continue growing, proving just how lucrative legalized marijuana has been for Colorado. As of this year, annual cannabis sales in Colorado hit $1 billion, accounting for 3% of the state’s $30 billion budget. 
From the very beginning, legalized cannabis seemed to be a perfect match for the Colorado market. While other states have experienced difficulty getting plans for cannabis industry expansion of the ground, Colorado’s sales showed immediate promise. After the initial legalization of recreational marijuana, Colorado only had 30 active stores selling marijuana and marijuana products. Within the first year, this number grew to more than 300 active stores and now sits at an incredible 2,917 active and licensed cannabis businesses throughout the state of Colorado, according to CNBC.
Like the economy, Colorado tourism has also seen growth as a result of legalized recreational marijuana. In 2017, Colorado saw record numbers of visitors, with more than 86 million tourists flocking to the state over the course of the year, with around 25% reporting that legalized marijuana was a primary reason for their trip. 
Though legalized marijuana has aided in stimulating both economic and job growth for Colorado, the industry has been slow to open to individuals impacted by past incarceration or felony convictions. Though the legalization of marijuana has naturally reduced the number of drug-related arrests for the state, Colorado’s incarceration rates are still relatively high, and those that have served time often struggle to find work after having completed their sentence. 
Now, with the passing of SB19-224, individuals with prior felony convictions could have a new opportunity to enter the cannabis workforce. Among the many changes listed in SB19-224, changes to licensing restrictions could help to give thousands of individuals a second chance and the opportunity to work in the marijuana industry. 
Colorado Incarceration
For every 100,000 people in Colorado, 351 are incarcerated. With more than 30,000 individuals incarcerated by the Colorado prison system, Colorado ranks #28 in the U.S., surpassing more than half the country. While the rest of the country has seen a slight decline in incarceration rates, Colorado has remained steady or seen a slight increase over the past few years. Though mass incarceration remains a problem for the entirety of the United States, the Colorado prison system has some particular problems of its own, especially pertaining to individuals who have finished serving time and have been released. 
There is a myriad of problems and barriers facing formerly incarcerated individuals, from social and personal obstacles to concrete financial roadblocks. For example, once released, formerly incarcerated individuals must serve a term of probation, requiring them to submit to certain guidelines and remain under controlled supervision for a period of time. 
Despite being required to follow probation protocols, formerly incarcerated individuals are also forced to pay a monthly supervision fee throughout the duration of their parole. In Colorado, more than 48% of individuals on parole make less than $20,000 annually and are still forced to pay up to $600 a year to support their parole supervision. 
Getting Hired After a Felony
Though Colorado law states specifically that “a felony offense cannot, in and of itself, act as an automatic bar to being employed in the public sector or obtaining certain occupational licenses,” finding employment after a felony conviction can be an incredibly difficult task. Though purely having offended cannot bar you from employment, employers are still completely within their legal rights to inquire about past convictions, perform background checks, and deny employment based on criminal history. 
In order to find work, many individuals are forced to visit agencies that specialize in placing felons in appropriate working positions. Certain industries bar former felons entirely, and will rarely if ever consider opening a position for an individual who has served a sentence for a felony. These jobs include working with vulnerable populations like children and the elderly, and until recently, working in the cannabis industry. 
Overview of SB19-224
SB19-224 contains a variety of changes to medical and recreational marijuana policy and regulations, including details for allowing the recycling of marijuana packaging, changing how dispensary employees will be able to receive incentives, and further definitions and regulations relating to licensing and permits. 
Tucking into one small portion of SB19-224, the act includes an important change for individuals with felony convictions that are interested in entering the marijuana industry. “Under current law, a person is prohibited from being licensed if the person discharged a sentence for a felony within 5 years of applying for licensure or discharged a drug felony conviction within 10 years of applying for licensure. The act changes the law so a person is prohibited from licensure of the person was convicted of a felony within 3 years of applying for licensure or is currently serving a sentence for a felony or a deferred judgment or sentence.”
Put simply, SB19-224 drastically reduces the time formerly incarcerated individuals will have to wait before attempting to enter the cannabis industry. Rather than waiting 5 years after discharge for non-drug-related felonies, or 10 years after discharge for drug-related felonies, the period has been reduced to only 3 years past discharge. 
A Second Chance In the Cannabis Industry
After historically experiencing difficulty after incarceration, the changes made by SB19-224 could open a new door for former felons looking for a second chance. While many industries are hesitant to open their doors to individuals with past convictions, the cannabis industry may prove to be a more welcoming and understanding place. After decades of persecution and mass incarceration as a result of “the war on drugs” and anti-marijuana sentiment, the cannabis industry has done its best to welcome individuals affected by this long period of discrimination into its ranks. 
With less stringent restrictions for formerly incarcerated individuals looking for work, the cannabis industry could soon be welcoming a new workforce of people looking for a second chance. For many, marijuana cultivation and business has meant a better, more independent life. Legalized cannabis has opened the door for thousands of individuals, and made an incredible impact on so many people’s lives. 
For individuals with past felony convictions, the chance to enter the cannabis industry could be an opportunity for them to create an entirely new life. Cannabis allows individuals to naturally grow within the industry, and as the industry itself grows, more opportunities will naturally follow.