According to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, the move will affect 542 people. That’s 542 lives, which is nothing to sneeze at, but the equivalent of about a day’s worth of pot arrests in New York City. But the point isn’t the number, but that Seattle is doing so at all.
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.
The headline calls this “decades” of marijuana possession convictions. These preceded Washington State’s legalization of weed in 2012. Why just Seattle and not statewide is unknown, for legalization raises the question of whether it makes any sense to maintain a sentence, to maintain a conviction on someone’s record, for conduct that’s now totally lawful.
The question isn’t as simple as weed is legal now, so old convictions should obviously be tossed. At the time of the arrest, prosecutions and convictions occurred, possession of marijuana was unlawful. Part of the deterrence effect of the system is to prevent people from engaging in conduct that was criminal, the specific conduct committed as well as other criminal conduct. A “don’t commit crimes” message.
So it was a crime, and they committed it, and they were punished for it. And they carry a criminal record reflecting the fact that they were willing to engage in criminal conduct.
The record has significant consequences, of course, from precluding people from jobs, housing, educational access, licensure to possible deportation. And then there are the secondary effects, higher bail, enhanced sentences and increased police attention. Once you have a rap sheet, you’re on the cops’ radar.
So should people who knowingly broke the law and possessed an illegal substance get a clean slate in a state that has since chosen to make it lawful? Absolutely.
Weed possession isn’t a malum in se crime. It’s not a crime of moral turpitude or a harm perpetrated on others. It was only a crime because a legislature decided it should be, just as it subsequently decided it shouldn’t be.
But pot possession has been fairly ubiquitous since the ’60s. Most kids gave it a try. Many continued to use it with some regularity. They weren’t bad kids, and most were never arrested for it, even though they grew up to be prosecutors, legislators, presidents and judges.
There’s a logical disconnect for people who smoked weed themselves to be passing judgment on others who did nothing worse than they did themselves. Yet, that’s how it happens. Some would call it hypocrisy, that “there but for the grace of God go I” isn’t a rationalization to ignore that one pot smoker passes judgment on another.
Under these circumstances, there is no real message to be sent about people busted for possession of marijuana being subject to the deterrence of having a criminal conviction on their record. While the notion that deterrence works at all is suspect in most cases, the notion that it’s a price the needs to be paid by the relative handful of people convicted for it, in comparison to the vast number of people who would theoretically be subject to prosecution is farcical. It didn’t stop you from bogarting that joint, did it? If you insist that their conduct need follow them forever, do you plan to turn yourself in at the nearest police station to confess your sin? I thought not.
The mentality that fueled the War on Drugs is deeply embedded in our heads and our society. We’ve come to believe that there is a terrible evil, a harm to others, that is inherent in drug use, rather than collateral to drug use as a result of our efforts to win the war. There will be people who moved on from weed to meth, but most don’t. There will be dealers who used violence to hold their turf, but they would be smiling shopkeepers if their product was lawful.
There are also people whose futures were ruined by a youthful bust for pot, who might have gone to college, become productive and contributing members of society, maybe even the one who “cured cancer” if only the circumstances were different. Instead, one youthful indiscretion caught by the cops by sheer misfortune of timing, neighborhood or skin color, condemned him to a life as a convicted criminal.
It was wrong then. It’s wrong now. The law has been corrected to reflect the end of society’s drug hysteria and it’s time to correct its consequences as well. Remember, that could just as well be you, your loved one, your children, condemned as a criminal for doing what everyone else did but somehow managed to avoid all consequences. If you’re not worse for it, then they shouldn’t be either.
Void the weed convictions. In Seattle. In Washington State. Everywhere. It’s time to not only end the war, but restore its casualties. Indeed, this won’t alter the consequences suffered at the time, and it’s an inadequate response, but it’s the least we should do to make things right.