By David Z. Morris
April 28, 2018

The City of Seattle has filed a motion in municipal court to vacate – that is, retroactively void – all misdemeanor marijuana convictions in the city. According to a statement from Mayor Jenny Durkan, the request would effect 542 people. The city has also requested the dismissal of outstanding misdemeanor possession charges. In 2012, Washington became the first U.S. state to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

As marijuana prohibition ends in states across the U.S., the impact of past laws is being considered in a new light. Durkan echoed a growing consensus in describing Seattle’s move as an “important step to right the wrongs [of] the failed war on drugs.” She particularly focused on drug laws impacts on people of color, who have for decades been convicted under aggressive drug laws at disproportionately high rates relative to whites.

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That injustice has become even more glaring as legal marijuana spawns an above-board industry that could grow to $50 billion within a decade, but which does not appear poised to benefit the very minorities who were so abused by earlier drug laws. That bleak irony was hammered home earlier this month when John Boehner, a former leader in the political party that formally initiated the War on Drugs, joined the advisory board of a marijuana firm.

Seattle’s attempt to rebalance those scales, at least in a minor way, follows a February move by Philadelphia to stop criminally prosecuting low-level marijuana offenses.

There is growing evidence that marijuana has a range of medical applications and health benefits. Perhaps most strikingly, recent evidence has shown that states with legal marijuana have lower rates of opiate use. That could help curtail a true drug crisis with devastating economic and social impacts – and which was sparked, in large part, by the actions of huge pharmaceutical companies.

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