City Hall

Seattle Will Dismiss All Misdemeanor Pot Convictions

About 500 to 600 people have been convicted for misdemeanor marijuana possession by the city.

By Hayat Norimine February 8, 2018

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If you've ever been prosecuted by the city for possessing pot, you're about to get a clean slate. 

Mayor Jenny Durkan on Thursday announced she will ask the Seattle Municipal Court to vacate all misdemeanor marijuana convictions and dismiss charges the city pursued before the state legalized weed. 

That covers about 500 to 600 people who were convicted for misdemeanor marijuana possession through the city, according to the city attorney's office. The decision is an "important step in the cycle" of Durkan's career, she told reporters on Thursday, after five years as a Barack Obama-appointed U.S. attorney and a stint volunteering at the public defender's office as a law student.

In an op-ed for The Stranger on Thursday morning, Durkan said "people's lives were ruined for misdemeanor marijuana offenses," affecting their ability to apply for loans, housing and jobs, and said some of the damage is done. She called the war on drugs a failure that unfairly targeted people of color. And she said she hopes the city can act as an example for other cities or the state to consider following suit and admit that "we as a society made a mistake."

"The war on drugs ended up being more a war on people who needed help, who needed opportunity, and who needed treatment," Durkan said. "While this is not a sufficient step to make up for it, it is a necessary step to make our system more just." 

Vacating a conviction allows the defendant to withdraw a guilty plea for not guilty, then get the charge dismissed. While information on the conviction still exists, it shouldn't show up in background checks. (Getting your records expunged only happens for non-convictions, when the data gets deleted altogether.) 

It would help those who currently have only the misdemeanor marijuana possession on their criminal records; any other crimes will remain, including state or felony marijuana convictions, since the city has no authority over those.

In Washington state, African Americans were three times more likely to get arrested for possession, Latinos and Native Americans 1.6 times more likely. 

Durkan's announcement follows the San Francisco prosecutor's decision just eight days earlier to vacate and dismiss thousands of pot convictions. 

Even before state voters legalized recreational pot use with a 2012 initiative, city attorney Pete Holmes stopped prosecuting for the crime when he took office in 2010 and long advocated for marijuana legalization. Durkan's decision on Thursday would affect prosecutions before Holmes became city attorney. He also dismissed pending marijuana cases. 

How the city plans to inform people about their dismissed convictions is still up in the air; Holmes told reporters there was a privacy concern, that naming those who were convicted would effectively undo their goal of removing records of the conviction. The city attorney's office plans to set up a web portal for people to look up whether their convictions have been dismissed, said deputy city attorney John Schochet. 

"We're going to do everything we can in the city of Seattle to hold our gains," Holmes said. 

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