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City of Seattle to clear misdemeanor marijuana convictions

SEATTLE -- The City of Seattle plans to wipe out misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions prosecuted by the city before pot was legalized in Washington.

Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Attorney Pete Holmes announced the decision in a news conference on Thursday.

“The City of Seattle has long been a pioneer in changing the way we approach marijuana. I was proud to end the practice of charging simple marijuana possession cases when I became City Attorney and to sponsor I-502 two years later. Today we are taking another important step by moving to vacate past convictions for conduct that is now legal,” said Holmes. 

I-502 legalized the possession and recreational use of marijuana in Washington for adults 21 and over.

The Seattle City Attorney's Office will ask the municipal court to vacate convictions and dismiss charges for misdemeanor possession prosecuted by the city.

Durkan's office provided these statistics about the racial disparities in these convictions:

Marijuana possession arrests in Washington rose sharply in the 25 year period from 4,000 in 1986 to 11,000 in 2010, totaling 240,000 arrests according to the Drug Policy Alliance.

In King County, there were 65,483 arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

In Washington State, African Americans were arrested at 2.9 times the rate of whites. Latinos and Native Americans were arrested at 1.6 times the rate of whites.

“The war on drugs had devastating impacts on people, especially people of color and their families. People’s lives were ruined for misdemeanor marijuana offenses.  This action is a necessary first step in righting the wrongs of the past and putting our progressive values into action,” said Durkan.

“Addressing decades of unjust convictions – and particularly the damage wrought on communities of color – won’t happen overnight. We must provide more effective alternatives to prosecution and incarceration through drug and mental health courts, restoring rights and supporting re-entry," Durkan added.

Several U.S. cities and states have in recent years allowed people to petition to have their pot convictions vacated or sealed.

But Seattle and San Francisco appear to be the only major jurisdictions erasing convictions en masse.

Holmes says he expects to clear 500 to 600 convictions dating to 1997.

Seattle has long had a tolerant approach to low-level pot crimes.

Holmes hasn't prosecuted them since taking office in 2010.