Seattle Plans to Clear Cannabis Convictions
The city of Seattle has filed a motion to vacate hundreds of marijuana convictions going back more than 20 years. As these convictions disproportionately affected people of color, this is being hailed as an important step toward “cannabis equity” — implementing legalization in a way that addresses the social injustices associated with prohibition.
Officials in Seattle announced on April 25 that they have filed a motion calling on the city’s Municipal Court to vacate all convictions and drop all charges for marijuana possession going all the way back to 1996. The move would affect 542 people who have convictions on their records.
“Vacating charges for misdemeanor marijuana possession is a necessary step to correct the injustices of what was a failed war on drugs, which disproportionately affected communities of color in Seattle,” Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a statement quoted by The Hill.
Durkan’s words made clear her belief that Washington state’s legalization of cannabis, approved by voters in 2012, must actively work to solve the social injustices brought on by the long years of prohibition. “The war on drugs in large part became a war on people who needed opportunity and treatment,” she said. “While we cannot reverse all the harm that was done, we must do our part to give Seattle residents — including immigrants and refugees — a clean slate.”
The motion explicitly acknowledges the racial disparity in cannabis convictions, citing a 2013 ACLU report to the effect that “African-Americans are 3.73 times more to be arrested for possession of marijuana than Caucasians, even though both groups consume marijuana at similar rates.”
City Attorney Pete Holmes, who drafted and filed the motion, said in a statement quoted by Seattle’s The Stranger weekly publication: “As we see marijuana sold in retail storefronts today, people who simply had a joint in their pocket a decade ago still have a red mark on their records. It’s long past time we remedy the drug policies of yesteryear, and this is one small step to right the injustices of a drug war that has primarily targeted people of color. I’m hopeful the court will choose to clear these charges.”
Mayor Durkan especially emphasized in her statement that prohibitionist policies adversely impacted undocumented immigrant residents of Washington state.
“Noncitizens have also been unduly burdened by these convictions, which can provide a roadblock to gaining citizenship, or in the worst case, can initiate deportation proceedings,” she said.
The Hill notes that Seattle’s motion to vacate cannabis convictions follows a similar step in this direction by Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. In February, Krasner dropped 51 recently filed marijuana possession charges and put city police on notice that he would continue to do so. “We are going to tell them, yes, drop any cases that are simply marijuana possession,” Krasner said.
“I did it because I felt it was the right thing to do,” Krasner explained. “We could use those resources to solve homicides.”
Pennsylvania has not legalized cannabis, although it has had a medical marijuana law since 2016. State lawmakers have since then broached a legalization measure in the Keystone State. So judicial authorities there may yet get a chance to retroactively vacate convictions. But so far, Seattle is leading the way.
In California, lawyers are holding expungement clinics to help citizens clear their records. The state’s district attorneys have debated whether or not they have the resources to comb through past records to vacate cannabis possession crimes, but some cities, including San Francisco, have promised to make the effort.
The Marijuana Justice Act introduced earlier this year by New Jersey’s Sen. Cory Booker would retroactively expunge all federal convictions for possession or use of cannabis. This bill would actually remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act. In mid-April, the Marijuana Justice Act got a big boost when Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont signed on to it.
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