In an effort to bring “restorative justice” to communities that have been disproportionately affected by drug law enforcement, Seattle’s mayor and city attorney said Thursday that the city will move to dismiss marijuana possession convictions that were prosecuted before Washington state voted to legalize the drug.
The state passed a measure in 2012 allowing adults age 21 and over to carry up to an ounce of marijuana.
An estimated 500 to 600 cases could be affected, although the precise figure is not yet known, city attorney Pete Holmes said Thursday at a press conference. The move would alleviate what can be devastating personal and professional consequences for those convicted.
“I can’t emphasize enough how much a conviction affects a person’s life the moment it happens. Almost every application they fill out will ask, ‘Have you ever been convicted of a crime?’” Mayor Jenny Durkan said at the conference. “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.”
In an op-ed published earlier in the day, the mayor said the “failed war on drugs” had a “clear racial bias and disproportionately targeted and impacted communities of color in our state.”
She pointed to a 2012 Washington State University report showing that although white people in the state use marijuana at a slightly higher rate than black and Latino people, they are arrested far less. Black people were arrested at 2.9 times the rate of white people between 1986 and 2010. Latinos and Native Americans were arrested at 1.6 times the rate of white people.
Holmes and Durkan expressed a desire to dismiss marijuana convictions across the entire state, but said stalled efforts had led them to take action where they could ― in Seattle.
“I saw firsthand the ‘war on drugs,’ including its devastating impacts on people, especially people of color and their families,” Durkan wrote in the op-ed, recalling her experience at Seattle’s public defender’s office. “People’s lives were ruined for misdemeanor marijuana offenses. Too many here in our community faced huge legal bills and fines, or had a harder time getting loans, apartments, and good-paying jobs.”
Seattle’s decision comes after San Francisco prosecutors announced plans late last month to wipe out marijuana convictions dating back to 1975.
San Francisco prosecutors announced a plan to dismiss and seal more than 3,000 misdemeanor cases, as well as to dismiss or reduce nearly 5,000 felony marijuana convictions. (Durkan and Holmes said they are not able to change felony convictions in their city.) California voted to legalize marijuana in 2016. The state included a legal avenue for people with past convictions to see them erased, but the process was not widely known and sometimes required costly attorneys.
Now, neither Seattle nor San Francisco will require people to take any action on their past convictions.
Nine states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana, and voters are viewing legalization with increasing favorability ― meaning many other areas face questions on what to do about past convictions that no longer conform to policy.
This article has been updated with details from Thursday’s press conference.