Seattle Municipal Court Agrees to Vacate Marijuana Convictions

As you may be aware, Cultiva Law is committed to advancing social justice issues as well as representing the cannabis industry, and one of Cultiva Law’s primary issues of focus from a policy standpoint is easing the process by which people can vacate qualifying criminal records, particularly for cannabis convictions.

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes and Mayor Jenny Durkan at a news conference in February 2018 announcing the City’s vacation of records effort (Elaine Thompson / The Associated Press)

On September 11, the Seattle Municipal Court unanimously ruled to vacate misdemeanor marijuana offenses dated 1996-2010 that is estimated to affect 542 people. This follows Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes’ April 27, 2018 motion in Municipal Court requesting the Court vacate all convictions and dismiss misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions that were rendered between 1997 and 2010. Homes, along with Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, explained at a press conference earlier in the year, “Vacating charges for misdemeanor marijuana possession is a necessary step to correct the injustices of what was a failed war on drugs, which disproportionately affected communities of color in Seattle.”

The Court in it’s September 11, 2018 ruling agreed that these cases disproportionately affected black people, who comprise 46% of the to-be-vacated convictions. Another 46% of cases that will be vacated by this most recent action are white — reflecting grave disproportionality in enforcement, as black people comprise just 7.1% of Seattle’s population. The offenses vacated by the September 11 ruling occurred between 2006 and 2010, because the City took over misdemeanor offenses from King County in 1997; as a result, offenses prior to that are still within the County’s jurisdiction, with respect to which the City has no authority to intervene. In 2010, the City stopped prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana offenses as a matter of policy, immediately after City Attorney Pete Holmes––a longtime advocate for the liberalization of cannabis policy––took office.

While not a cure-all, and also failing to address the additional burdens those who suffered convictions for marijuana crimes have suffered – including the inability to obtain stable housing, credit, jobs, or an education – this is a step in the right direction, and it is one that other cities such as San Francisco have recently taken as well. But there’s still a long way to go. Effort to vacate such convictions has been advanced at the state level, as well, throughout the country in the last several months – though we have yet to see any such reform here in Washington. For example, California approved AB 1793 which requires prosecutors to erase or reduce marijuana convictions, estimated to affect about 220,000 people. Oregon, too, advanced the issue in 2016 when it legalized cannabis, easing the process for over 78,000 convictions to be expunged. It should be noted that Oregon still requires individuals to actively pursue relief from the court in order to expunge their record; on the other hand, California has taken a proactive approach at the governmental level.

Both California and Oregon have made further progress with respect to this issue than Washington, but Washington is now gearing up for its own efforts. Two bills are expected to be reintroduced in the upcoming legislative session: HB 2890, known as the New Hope Act, and HB 1260. The New Hope Act eases the process by which individuals can seek to have their records vacated (establishing a functionally equivalent process to those that exist in some other states; WA state law doesn’t use the term “expungement”). Because it merely revises the laws and process, HB 2890 last year had a fiscal note of $0. The New Hope Act also applies to all offenses that already qualify for records vacation, not just marijuana-related offenses. HB 1260 would proactively vacate marijuana offenses, and because it would direct the state to undertake the burden of actively vacating these records, it carries a cost of about $440,000 in its fiscal note.

Cultiva Law will continue its efforts to advance these bills with its participation alongside the Cannabis Alliance — stay tuned for more updates.

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