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.
Officials estimate that more than 542 people could have their convictions dismissed by mid-November.
Disproportionate Application of Justice
Of the 542 cases cited, 46 percent involved African-American defendants, the judges said in their ruling. As of July 2017, the population of Seattle was about 7 percent African-American, according to US Census data.
The racial demographics of the other defendants in the 500-plus cases broke down as follows: 46 percent white, 3 percent Asian, 3 percent Native American, and 2 percent unknown.
United Front of Officials
The decision, Mayor Jenny Durkan said, will help tear down the barriers to the opportunity created by marijuana convictions. According to the ruling, vacating the convictions “serves the interests of justice.”
“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.”
The convictions will be cleared by mid-November after the court’s 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.
But Didn't Washington Legalize?
All of the marijuana-related convictions set aside for expungement were prosecuted before the state of Washington legalized weed.
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 over the age of 21.
Holmes is Looking Ahead
Seattle city attorney, Pete Holmes 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 when he filed the motion earlier this year.
The motion detailed this by stating, “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.”
“We’ve come a long way, and I hope this action inspires other jurisdictions to follow suit,” Holmes said.
Other States Too
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.
Currently, nine states (as well as Washington DC) have also legalized marijuana for recreational use, subject to regulations about growing and selling the drug.