Seattle doesn't have a large African-American population. Only about seven percent of the city's residents are black, but they represent a gross disproportion of the number of people convicted of marijuana possession.
Now, more than 500 people, nearly half of them are people of color, will have their marijuana convictions vacated after a unanimous decision by Seattle's seven municipal court judges.
Seattle will vacate misdemeanor marijuana convictions going back over the period from 1996 to 2010. Washington State legalized recreational use of marijuana in 2012, but Seattle stopped prosecuting marijuana possession cases sometime in 2010, after the election of a new city attorney.
The Forty-Six Percenters
Although the black population of Seattle is low, they represent 46 percent of those convicted of marijuana possession during the time in question. Seattle is the poster child for the fact that people of color are targeted far more often for minor drug crimes than their white counterparts.
Three percent each of the marijuana possession defendants are Asian or Native American, and 2 percent are of an unknown background. The Seattle city attorney who filed the motion to vacate these convictions back in April claimed that black people were three times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, but when looking at the demographics, it appears he was considerably underestimating the depth of the discrepancy.
The judges' order stated the obvious: “Possession of Marijuana charges prosecuted in Seattle Municipal Court between 1996 and 2010 disproportionally impacted persons of color in general, and the African American community in particular.” However, the order adds that the court did not find “individual defendants were specifically impacted because of their race.”
With Legalization, Vacation of Convictions
Marijuana still isn't legal on the federal level, but nine states, along with Washington, D.C. have legalized cannabis for recreational use. New York and New Jersey, two states with large populations, are likely to legalize weed in the near future. It may take some time, but it is clear legalization is the wave of the future.
Along with legalization has come the vacation of convictions for past marijuana offenses in these jurisdictions. New York City recently dismissed over 3,000 casesdating back as far as 1978.
The New York City District Attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., said outstanding warrants for these low-level crimes “drive law enforcement and our communities apart”. He noted the effect these laws have on the employment, housing, and immigration prospects of those convicted. While cannabis is not yet legal in New York City, those found smoking it in public no longer face arrest.
Instead, they will receive a summons, which is not handled by prosecutors. Individuals do face arrest if they are selling marijuana. Vance notes that of the 5,000 marijuana possession cases prosecuted by his office last year, only 200 had a previous felony conviction.
African Americans and Hispanics were prosecuted at a 15 to one rate compared to whites found possessing cannabis.
California Pot Expungement
Recreational marijuana became legal in California this past January 1st. In August, lawmakers passed a bill allowing expungement or downgrading of prior marijuana possession convictions.
The bill is now awaiting Governor Jerry Brown's signature. The legislation calls for California's Department of Justice to review past marijuana convictions and find if they are eligible for expungement, or, if felony convictions, downgrading to a misdemeanor. Approximately 218,000 people may prove eligible for expungement or downgrading of prior convictions.
Perhaps the ridiculous war on marijuana is finally drawing to a close. Given the surreal nature of our federal government recently, it is entirely possible that some more battles may be fought, but let's hope the handwriting is on the wall for even the most stubborn anti-pot diehards.
Too many lives have been ruined, not by cannabis, but by our ludicrous marijuana laws. Expungement is just the first step in righting these wrongs.