Earlier this month, all seven of Seattle’s municipal judges agreed to expunge the records of persons charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession who were convicted before pot was made legal in the state of Washington.
On September 11, in a historic and sweeping decision, the judges signed an order outlining a process for dissolving the criminal records of nearly 550 people who had been charged and convicted of marijuana possession between the years 1996 and 2010. This judicial decree covers cases that span the period from 1996, when the city of Seattle took over misdemeanor marijuana prosecutions from the surrounding King County, and ending in 2010, when Seattle embraced a policy that ended all minor marijuana possession prosecutions.
“Insomuch as the conduct for which the defendant was convicted is no longer criminal, setting aside the convictions and dismissing the case serves the interests of justice,” the judges wrote in their four-page order.
Perhaps the most significant finding in the judges’ order was an admission that these pot laws had been unfairly enforced on the city’s African-American community.
“Possession of Marijuana charges prosecuted in Seattle Municipal Court between 1996 and 2010 disproportionately impacted persons of color in general, and the African American community in particular,” the judges wrote. “Of the over 500 cases involved in this motion, the racial demographics of defendants were: 3% Asian, 46% black, 46% white, 3% Native American, 2% unknown.”
Racial disparities in drug arrests, convictions and sentencing have long been a source of friction, not only in Seattle but in nearly every diverse community across the land.
Making matters worse, local communities are increasingly relaxing both their attitudes and their laws concerning marijuana, even as pot arrests climb. There’s a schizophrenic quality to the nation’s evolving attitudes toward pot — Americans harbor a love-hate relationship with cannabis, leading to a grab-bag of public policies that often fail to relate seamlessly with one another.
Recent Gallup polls found that support for the legalization of recreational marijuana at 64 percent among US adults just last year. The legalization of medical marijuana garners even higher support — polling as high as the 80s.
Meanwhile, voters in ruby-red Oklahoma, a state known for its conservatism, recently legalized medical marijuana, becoming the 30th in the nation to do so. In Vermont, the legislature earlier this year voted to legalize pot for recreational purposes, making it the first take that step. Other states, such as Michigan, Utah, New Jersey, are considering various legal changes to allow consenting adults to use or consume marijuana for health or fun. And, of course, at the start of the current year, California launched the largest legal marijuana market in the world.
Nevertheless, even as polls show the rising popularity of marijuana legalization, citizens continue to back tough policing against pot users, especially if they’re black or brown people. And despite the rise of reform-minded state and local laws, marijuana arrests are on the increase across the nation, even as more states legalize the drug. According to an analysis by Forbes of FBI figures released on Monday, one marijuana bust takes place roughly every 48 seconds.
This analysis conducted by Forbes contributor Tom Angell, publisher of Marijuana Moment news and founder the nonprofit Marijuana Majority, found an increase in marijuana arrests—659,700 in 2017, compared to 653,249 in 2016. Angell’s analysis suggests the increase stems from more rigorous police enforcement against people merely possessing the drug as opposed to selling or growing it. Last year, he wrote, there were 599,282 marijuana possession arrests in the country, up from 587,516 in 2016. Meanwhile, busts for cannabis sales and manufacturing dropped, from 65,734 in 2016 to 60,418 in 2017.
“At a time when more than 100 deaths per day are caused by opioid overdoses, it is foolish to focus our limited law enforcement resources on a drug that has caused literally zero,” Don Murphy, federal policies director for the Marijuana Policy Project said in an interview with Angell.
In Seattle, the judges’ order requires the court to mail notices to all persons convicted of misdemeanor pot possession, giving each of them 33 days to object or request an individual finding. After that period expires, the court will vacate convictions and dismiss charges against all those charged, except any one who objects or seeking a separate finding. Practically speaking, those with pot possession records will not have to do anything to have their names cleared.
Kenya Bradshaw, a community activist in Memphis, Tennessee, praised the Seattle judges’ orders, noting the hypocrisy of having a burgeoning national marijuana industry making some people very wealthy at the same time as a great many black and brown people are convicted and imprisoned for minor pot offenses, saddling them with criminal records that inhibit their ability to get jobs, secure credit, or otherwise move on with their lives.
“I’m impressed with what [Seattle] has done,” she said in an interview with Think Progress. “It’s the right thing to do. When you have harmed individuals in communities, you have to find ways to remedy them.”
Bradshaw, vice president of community engagement and policy at TNTP, a national educational nonprofit, said that expunging criminal records is nevertheless just the first step toward policy equity in a world with evolving marijuana laws. More needs to be done.
“It is unfair that as we allow individuals to make profits off marijuana, it’s wrong to have people sitting in jails for selling of holding small amounts of it,” she said, estimating the nationwide pot industry will exceed $30 billion by 2021. “As marijuana legalization spreads across the country, it presents a great revenue-generation opportunity and we have to think proactively about what we do with those funds and who benefits from this.”