Seattle to vacate more than 500 convictions for marijuana possession

Critics of drug-possession prosecutions often argue that they unfairly target people of color. Seattle, where recreational use of marijuana was legalized in 2012, is doing something about it.

All seven judges on the city’s municipal court agreed this week to vacate convictions from 1996 to 2010 for misdemeanor marijuana possession, saying that they disproportionally impacted people of color.

Of the more than 500 cases cited, 46% involved African-American defendants, the judges said in their ruling.

As of July 2017, the population of Seattle was about 7% African-American, according to US Census data.

More than 500 people in the city will see their marijuana-related convictions set aside if they were prosecuted before the state of Washington legalized weed. According to the ruling, vacating the convictions “serves the interests of justice.”

The racial demographics of the other defendants in the 500-plus cases broke down as follows: 46% white, 3% Asian, 3% Native American, 2% unknown.

The convictions will be cleared by mid-November after the courts mail notices to the defendants to give them a chance to object or ask for individualized findings. Anyone who does not respond will have their conviction automatically vacated.

The decision, Mayor Jenny Durkan said, will help tear down the barriers to opportunity created by marijuana convictions.

“We’ve taken another important step to right the wrongs of the failed war on drugs, and to build true economic opportunity for all,” she said. “While we cannot reverse all the harm that was done, we will continue to act to give Seattle residents — including immigrants and refugees — a clean slate.”

Washington voters approved legalizing marijuana as a tax revenue measure in 2012. Initiative 502 legalized and regulated the production, possession and distribution of cannabis for people who were 21 and older.

The motion to vacate the convictions was filed in April by Seattle city attorney Pete Holmes, who argued that African-Americans were three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites and that the charges could have a damaging impact on a person’s future.

“Dismissing this charge reflects Seattle’s values and recognizes the negative collateral consequences of a drug conviction, including difficulty in finding employment or getting into college or the military, obtaining student loans or government subsidized housing qualifying for food stamps or other government assistance, being allowed entry into some foreign countries and obtaining child custody or adoption,” the motion stated.

The Seattle City Attorney’s Office stopped prosecuting marijuana-possession cases after Holmes was elected in 2010, according to his office.

“We’ve come a long way, and I hope this action inspires other jurisdictions to follow suit,” Holmes said.

The move by Seattle’s courts follows similar actions to decriminalize marijuana in other states.

More than 3,000 cases of marijuana smoking and possession, dating back to 1978, were dismissed earlier this month in New York City. And California lawmakers last month approved a bill that would allow residents to petition the judicial system to have their old pot convictions expunged.