Washington legalized recreational marijuana in 2012. Now, the municipal court in Seattle has agreed to vacate possession convictions from 1996 to 2010, cleaning the slate of about 542 nonviolent pot users.

There were no convictions to vacate between 2010 and the legalization of marijuana use because Seattle stopped prosecuting possession when Pete Holmes became city attorney.

While only seven percent of Seattle’s population is black, 46 percent of those cases involved black defendants, the seven judge panel said in their decision. They went on to say that vacating these 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,” said Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. “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 decision follows Holmes’ motion earlier this year requesting these convictions be vacated, who pointed to the racial disparity in marijuana convictions and the damaging impact the convictions have on a person’s future.

“We’ve come a long way, and I hope this action inspires other jurisdictions to follow suit,” said Holmes.

New York City similarly dismissed more than 3,000 cases of possession dating back to 1978 earlier this summer, California recently approved a bill allowing people to petition the state to have their pot possession conviction expunged, and the City of San Francisco vacated more than 3,000 pot-related convictions dating back to 1975. Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic candidate in Michigan’s gubernatorial race, also wants to vacate possession convictions if the state passes recreational marijuana legalization in November.

“We call it reparative justice: repairing the harms caused by the war on drugs,” Eunisses Hernandez of the Drug Policy Alliance told Pew.

Though Pew found that in states where people with convictions had to petition to have their records sealed, it was relatively uncommon for people to do so. There were several reasons they found, including the effort needed to seal what was often a civil infraction.

Those convicted in Seattle will be cleared by mid-November. The court, in the meantime, will mail defendants giving them a chance to object or ask personalized questions.


Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.

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