Photo by Brandon Macz: Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Attorney Pete Holmes talk about making a blanket motion to dismiss misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions in Seattle Municipal Court on Thursday, Feb. 8.
Photo by Brandon Macz: Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Attorney Pete Holmes talk about making a blanket motion to dismiss misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions in Seattle Municipal Court on Thursday, Feb. 8.
The Seattle City Attorney’s Office will be asking the municipal court to vacate convictions and charges for misdemeanor marijuana possession in a move Mayor Jenny Durkan says will right the wrongs of a once broken system that disproportionately targeted people of color.
City Attorney Pete Holmes and Durkan talked about the steps that will need to be taken to vacate an estimated 500-600 misdemeanor convictions and the reasoning for doing so during a news conference on Thursday, Feb. 8. 
Misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions have had huge implications for residents when seeking housing, credit and employment, Durkan said.
“The war on drugs ended up being more of a war on people who needed help, who needed opportunity and who needed treatment,” the mayor said. “We did little to stem the tide of the supply of drugs, and instead incarcerated almost an entire generation of users who could have had a different way.”
Holmes said voters decided almost 15 years ago that marijuana laws should be the lowest enforcement priority for Seattle Police with Initiative 75 in 2003, and that he’d promised to make that a reality when first running for office in 2009. Minor marijuana possession charges stopped after he took office in 2010, Holmes said, and he dismissed all pending charges at that time. 
“The court is very supportive of this,” Durkan said when asked what hurdles there might be in getting misdemeanor possession convictions vacated by Karen Donohue, presiding judge for the Seattle Municipal Court.
Holmes said the convictions planned for vacation took place between 1997 and the end of 2009, and prior to that the Legislature had left such prosecutions in the hands of the county prosecutor. 
The city attorney said it will probably be early next week when all of the resources are gathered needed to file a blanket motion to vacate the convictions, and the plan is to identify them by case number in an effort to protect the privacy of those convicted.
The Drug Policy Alliance reports marijuana possession arrests spiked from 4,000 in 1986 to 11,000 in 2010 for a total of 240,000, and King County represented 65,483 of those arrests. African Americans were arrested at nearly three times the rate of whites, and Latinos and Native Americans at 1.6 times the rate.
Marijuana possession was legalized in Washington following passage of Initiative 502 in 2012 and, of all of the states that have legalized recreational marijuana, Holmes said, Washington has done the best job managing a highly regulated industry that replaces “wrongheaded government prohibition.”
Holmes said he’s advocated for such a change at the state level, and he hopes legislation will pass next session that would allow people with misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions to petition for vacations. Durkan added she hopes Seattle’s move will encourage other cities and counties in Washington to take similar steps.
Ollie Garrett with the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board said misdemeanor possession charges also closed off opportunities to people of color in a points system that determines whether a person can be licensed and engage in the recreational marijuana industry in the state.  
“I’m just delighted to hear this decision announced,” said Public Defender Association director Lisa Daugaard to CHT following the news conference.
She said she sees the irony that people engaged in the marijuana economy prior to its legalization are prevented from participating now due to the point system when most of those convictions were for misdemeanor offenses. That point system doesn’t just relate to marijuana convictions, Daugaard said, and it’s her hope that the state will adjust how it addresses that part of the system.
She also supports King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg going further by addressing the peak felony crack possession arrests and convictions that took place in Seattle between 2000 and 2001 that disproportionately targeted the black community. Daugaard said it is now known that white people were the dominant population when it came to drug use and delivery.