In case you missed it, it looks as if Seattle is going to be joining San Francisco, Philadelphia, San Diego, and many other locations around the country in finally vacating misdemeanor cannabis convictions from the record books. The move will affect 542 people in the Seattle area, some with cases dating back more than 30 years. It’s the latest evolution in Seattle’s decades-long relationship with cannabis legalization.
City Attorney Pete Holmes filed the official motion to absolve the misdemeanors with the city’s Municipal Court at the end of April. (Seattle stoners may remember Holmes famously ripped up nearly 90 weed-related tickets passed out by an officer who had targeted African American and homeless men.) In the motion’s documentation, Holmes pointed out the racial disparity in cannabis arrests. “According to a report by the ACLU,” Holmes wrote, “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.” (Personally, this was one of the reasons I voted for the legalization Initiative 502 in 2012—though I had conflicts with the way the law was written—because I believed it might help tip the scales of justice back to neutral.)
Mayor Jenny Durkan and Holmes announced their intentions to go forward with this plan back in February. “The war on drugs had devastating impacts on people, especially people of color and their families. People’s lives were ruined for misdemeanor marijuana offenses. This action is a necessary first step in righting the wrongs of the past and putting our progressive values into action,” Durkan stated. “Addressing decades of unjust convictions—and particularly the damage wrought on communities of color—won’t happen overnight.”
The Attorney General and Mayor also noted the impact of cannabis prohibition on immigrants and refugees who already have or are seeking legal residency. Due to a broader definition of convictions used in immigration courts, even vacated cases can show up and jeopardize an applicant’s process. Durkan and Holmes are taking advice from the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. They want the change to be effective, even under federal immigration law. “We must provide more effective alternatives to prosecution and incarceration through drug and mental-health courts, restoring rights and supporting re-entry,” said Durkan.
Marijuana possession arrests in Washington increased dramatically in the period from 1986 to 2010, from 4,000 to 11,000 a year, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. In King County during that quarter century, there were 65,483 arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana. In Washington state, African Americans were arrested 2.9 times as often as whites, and Native Americans and Latinos were arrested 1.6 times as often.
Hopefully, the trend of vacating low-level cannabis crimes will catch on with the rest of Washington. So far, the legal weed states of California, Colorado, Nevada, Maryland, New Hampshire, and Oregon have all chosen to address the issue by helping people expunge or hide cannabis convictions on their records. Massachusetts is considering making the move as well, and activists in New Mexico and New York are beginning to rally support for the cause.
Drug convictions cause systemic damage to whole generations of families and neighborhoods—separating children from their parents, keeping skilled workers out of jobs and curious minds out of universities. Communities are robbed of their potential. I’m glad Holmes and Durkan are finally addressing this issue, and I would encourage them to be brave and look into clearing non-violent felony cases as well.