DENVER - Some people convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana can ask for those convictions to be thrown out under the law that legalized recreational marijuana in Colorado, the state's second-highest court ruled Thursday.
The Colorado Court of Appeals said people whose cases were under appeal when Amendment 64 took effect in December 2012 are eligible to have their convictions reversed.
The ruling could affect hundreds of people who were given jail terms for petty marijuana possession, and some inmates could be released, said Brian Vicente, one of the amendment's authors. "This is a huge victory," he said.
Vicente said Colorado prosecuted as many as 9,000 cases a year for marijuana possession. After it was decriminalized, a number of appeals were still in the courts.
Prosecutors were trying to determine how many cases could be affected after the ruling. They also were reviewing the opinion to determine any next steps, said Carolyn Tyler, a spokeswoman for Attorney General John Suthers.
The ruling came in the case of Brandi Jessica Russell, who was convicted in Grand County of possessing one gram or less of methamphetamine, possession of marijuana concentrate and possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.
Her attorney, Brian Emeson, said Thursday the ruling is another indication the "tide is turning" on the nationwide attitude toward possession of small amounts of pot.
Emeson said he still handles a number of marijuana appeals, which shows prosecutors have not backed off.
"This ruling shows it would be wise for them to focus on more pressing matters," he said.
Amendment 64 decriminalized the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana and covers regular marijuana as well as concentrate.
Russell was sentenced in August 2011 to four years of supervised probation and 192 hours of community service, plus a suspended 90-day jail term. The appeals court overturned the convictions and sentences for possession of marijuana Thursday and sent the case back to the trial courts.
Russell and prosecutors in her case couldn't be immediately reached for comment.
In the ruling, the judges said Amendment 64 didn't include a provision for throwing out convictions imposed before its passage. However, they said state law allows a defendant to received postconviction relief "if there has been a significant change in the law."
They compared Amendment 64 to lawmakers' decision in the 1970s to make marijuana possession a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail, down from a maximum sentence of 15 years, under a statute passed a decade earlier. At the time, the court said defendants were entitled to appeal their convictions after that change.
"Amendment 64, by decriminalizing the personal use or possession of one ounce or less of marijuana, meets the statutory requirement for a significant change in the law," the judges ruled.
Marijuana advocates cheered the ruling but said it won't affect most marijuana convicts.
"If I had a marijuana conviction 10 years ago, that doesn't go away," said Sean McAllister, a spokesman for the Colorado chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.
McAllister is a criminal defense attorney who said most people don't appeal pot convictions.
"This is the right legal decision, but we are talking about people who are disproportionately poor, minorities, unlikely to pursue an appeal," McAllister said.