Seattle will soon vacate misdemeanor marijuana convictions. Photo courtesy of Bob Doran/Flickr

Seattle will soon vacate misdemeanor marijuana convictions. Photo courtesy of Bob Doran/Flickr

Seattle Moves to Clear Marijuana Misdemeanor Convictions

The mayor and city attorney’s policy change could impact hundreds convicted before weed legalization.

Although Washington legalized cannabis in 2012, those charged with misdemeanor marijuana convictions prior to legalization have remained in a time warp ever since. Individuals arrested for minor possession of marijuana can be precluded from housing, as well as job and educational opportunities—barriers that disproportionately impact people of color. According to a 2012 Marijuana Arrest Research Project report commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance, African Americans, Latinx, and Native Americans accounted for 25 percent of marijuana arrests between 2001-2010 despite only comprising 14 percent of the state population.

But that could soon change thanks to a policy aimed at addressing unjust convictions and the racial inequities in criminalization. On Thursday, Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Attorney Pete Holmes announced that Seattle would move to vacate misdemeanor marijuana-possession convictions by early next week.

“I can’t emphasize enough how much a conviction affects a person’s life the moment it happens,” Durkan said during a Thursday press conference at Rainier Community Center. “Almost every application they do for a job or for housing will ask, ‘Have you ever been convicted of a crime?’ It really forecloses opportunities: everything from jobs, to education, to being a part of who we are as a society. And so while we cannot reverse all the harm that was done, we can give back to those people a record that says they were not convicted, because that is the more just thing to do.”

The move marks the city’s latest policy effort to reflect the evolving public attitudes on marijuana. In 2003, Seattle voters approved Initiative 75, a ballot measure that made weed arrests and prosecution the police’s lowest enforcement policy. Shortly after taking office in 2010, Holmes dismissed all pending marijuana-possession cases and announced that his office would no longer prosecute such cases. Two years later, Washington voters approved Initiative 502, legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for adults 21 and older.

To begin the process of vacating convictions issued prior to legalization, the City Attorney’s office will work with the Seattle Municipal Court to attain a complete list of marijuana convictions that occurred between 1997 and the end of 2009. (King County prosecuted misdemeanor marijuana convictions for Seattle prior to the late ‘90s, when the responsibility was turned over to the city attorney’s office, Deputy City Attorney John Schochet told Seattle Weekly.) Holmes’ office will then file a motion with the court asking that the convictions be vacated and the cases be dismissed. Although there’s no guarantee that the court will grant the motion, Schochet said that prosecutors are in support of the policy change and that he’s hopeful the court will abide.

Durkan noted during Thursday’s press conference that people with convictions won’t need to take any actions to clear them, and that the city will also create a website where individuals can monitor their vacation process. Holmes added that between 500 to 600 people could be impacted by the policy change. “The War on Drugs commenced largely by President Nixon back in 1971—the legacy that has left this country as the number one jailer nation, not to mention exacerbating institutional racism—has been a legacy that we all bare today and that we all are struggling with,” Holmes said. “This is one small move toward trying to undo that wrong.”

Marijuana law reform advocates are in support of the policy change, considering it in line with Initiative 502’s intent to “stop treating adult marijuana use as a crime.” Kevin Oliver, Executive Director of advocacy group Washington NORML, hopes that the city’s decision will convince other jurisdictions to follow suit. “There’s still a long ways to go in law reforms around the country. I hope that people take notice in other legal states and other towns around the state of Washington … and allow people to expunge their records all throughout the state,” Oliver said.

Thursday’s announcement follows a similar one San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón made last week, which vowed to dismiss misdemeanor convictions and to consider reducing felony marijuana charges from the past four decades. San Francisco is both a city and a county, so Gascón’s office prosecutes all misdemeanors and felonies within the jurisdiction. However, Seattle’s city attorney’s office only prosecutes misdemeanor possession cases, and therefore has no control over the felony marijuana charges.

The Spokane City Council also unanimously voted to vacate misdemeanor possession of marijuana charges in 2015.

It remains to be seen if Seattle’s policy change will encourage King County to vacate its felony marijuana convictions. But a statement from King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg reveals that the county is seriously considering it: “We have jurisdiction for felonies, including selling, growing and possession of amounts with intent to distribute, so our review would necessitate looking at the case file to distinguish cases,” Satterberg said. “We have been following the San Francisco District Attorney’s office to find out more as their standards seem reasonable. In order for our office to undertake this project, we would need some help, because all of our criminal division deputies and staff are already overloaded with prosecuting serious felony crimes.”

mhellmann@seattleweekly.com

More in News & Comment

Mary Lynn Pannen, founder and CEO of Sound Options, has consulted thousands of Washington families on geriatric care for 30 years. Photo courtesy of Sound Options
Seattle Takes on Elder Abuse as Reported Cases Rise

Local agencies and geriatric care managers aim to increase public awareness about the epidemic.

The Ride2 transit app will offer on-demand rides to and from West Seattle starting on Dec. 17. Courtesy of King County Metro
Climate Action Coalition Urges City to Respond to Seattle Squeeze

MASS asks the city to prioritize reducing traffic and increasing pedestrian safety ahead of the Alaskan Way Viaduct’s closure.

State Supreme Court Strikes Down I-27; King County Will Pursue Safe Consumption Sites

The decision upholds a court ruling keeping the anti-consumption site initiative off the ballot.

Seattle’s Hockey Team And Stadium Are On Their Way

Key Arena renovations will be completed without the use of public funding

Andrea Bernard, Allycea Weil, and Phoenix Johnson (left to right) are Licton Springs K-8 parents who want their kids to stay in the Native-centered program. Photo by Melissa Hellmann
Licton Springs K-8 Parents Dismayed by Potential School Move

The PTO says children have benefited from the Native-centered program, and that transferring the pupils would disrupt their progress.

Seattle Municipal Court’s warrant outreach event on Nov. 30, 2017. Photo by Melissa Hellmann
Seattle Takes Steps to Quash Warrants

City Attorney attempts to address inequities in criminal justice system and enhance public safety.

The King County Courthouse. File photo
King County Council Acknowledges Report on Juvenile Solitary Confinement

Report also says youth of color face a disproportionate amount of disciplinary measures

Federal Way Megachurch Slapped With Another Sexual Exploitation Lawsuit

Lawsuit calls for removal of Casey and Wendy Treat, and CFO, from church leadership roles.

The Centralia Power Plant is a coal-burning plant owned by TransAlta which supplies 380 megawatts to Puget Sound Energy. It is located in Lewis County and slated to shut down by 2025. Aaron Kunkler/Staff Photo
National Report Outlines Climate Change’s Course For Northwest

More fires, floods and drought appear to be on their way for Washington state.

Mustafa Getahun and other Washington Federation of State Employees laundry workers picket University of Washington Medicine at Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery on May 17, 2018. Photo courtesy of the Washington Federation of State Employees
University of Washington Laundry Workers Feel Hung Out to Dry

The Rainier Valley facility’s imminent closure leaves over 100 people looking for new jobs.