Cannabis-Related Charges: Reversing the Wrong

Seattle officials have taken a major step towards justice. The 542 folks who were charged with cannabis possession between 1996 and 2010 will have those charges vacated. Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes filed the motion in April and the motion was approved Sept. 11. This is not only a win for cannabis consumers, but it represents a larger step toward racial equality in the state, as cannabis-related convictions disproportionately affect people of color.

Holmes shared that he hopes this landmark decision will serve as a positive example and inspire other cities.

“Take a moment to recognize the significance of the seven judges finding that ‘setting aside the conviction and dismissing the case serves the interests of justice.’ We’ve come a long way, and I hope this action inspires other jurisdictions to follow suit,” Holmes told CULTURE. “Five hundred and forty-two people have criminal records for holding something we can buy in retail storefronts today. In short order, thanks to our Seattle Municipal Court judges, those convictions will be history.”

According to the court document, “Preliminary Findings of Fact Conclusions of Law and Order Re: City’s Motion to Dismiss Possession of Marijuana Charges,” the court took the following actions to make sure the charges were justly dismissed.

Defendants were given a chance to respond.
If the defendants didn’t respond within 33 days, or their notice comes back as undeliverable, Seattle Municipal Court entered the final order, and their charges were vacated.
If defendants responded with an objection, or “moves the court with different belief” motions hearings would be scheduled.

Basically, if defendants do nothing, their charges will be vacated, but if for some odd reason they object, or wish to go to court about it, they can. By mid-November, most of the defendants’ charges will have been vacated.

Seattle Municipal Court’s Public Disclosure & Communications Advisor, Gary Ireland, said in his statement: “We have received the certified addresses requested from the Seattle City Attorney and are in the process of preparing notices to impacted individuals,” Ireland wrote via email. “We don’t have an exact date for when the notices will be sent; however, we anticipate that they will be sent this month.”

“We’ve come a long way, and I hope this action inspires other jurisdictions to follow suit.”

The main reason that these charges were vacated is that cannabis is now legal in Washington. Another reason, according to the preliminary findings, is that “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. Of the over 500 cases involved in this motion, the racial demographics of defendants were: three percent Asian, 46 percent black, 46 percent white, three percent Native American and two percent unknown.”

According to the 2012-2016 American Community Survey, African Americans comprise seven percent of Seattle’s population, which decreased 0.7 percent from the 2010 census. The fact that 46 percent of defendants with cannabis possession were black and less than eight percent of the population was black, points to an issue with systemic racism within the city of Seattle. Vacating cannabis possession charges is a small, albeit positive first step to right this wrong.

As cannabis is legalized elsewhere in the country, it’s important jurisdictions take action to right the wrongs of past policy. Seattle, like San Francisco before it, has created an effective and ethical template for courts to do just that.