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Cities And States Offer A Clean Slate For Marijuana Misdemeanors

Lost amid the fanfare of legalizing cannabis is how simply ending prohibition is not enough to help Americans with past offences.

While many did not serve jail time for their crimes, having a criminal record can be a lifelong punishment. According to The New York Times, "hundreds of thousands of people who are arrested each year but do not go to jail also suffer; their arrests stay on their records for years, crippling their prospects for jobs, loans, housing and benefits."

Those hardships are especially cruel in places like Washington state. Cannabis has been legal there since 2014, but legislators have struggled to pass a law that would vacate convictions for minor marijuana offences.

That inaction prompted the city of Spokane to initiate its own reform. On Nov. 9, city council voted 6-0 in favor of legislation that will allow residents to apply to have cannabis convictions removed from their criminal records.

But there are a few catches: only people convicted of a misdemeanor for possession in a Spokane municipal court are eligible. That means people outside the city can't simply move to Spokane in hopes of clearing the slate. Also, cannabis felonies will not be cleared from people's records.

Minority groups unfairly punished by existing laws

Still, the measure stands to make a huge difference. From 1997-2012 there were 1,817 convictions that would be eligible to be vacated. And a disproportionate number of those people are from minority groups, according to City Council President Ben Stuckart, who introduced the motion to overturn convictions.

"There are racial disparities in our whole criminal justice system," said Stuckart. "People of color get convicted of these [misdemeanors] at a higher percentage."

That is the commonplace experience throughout America. According to the ACLU, African-Americans are three times likelier to be charged and convicted of crimes involving cannabis or other drugs than white people, even though neither racial group uses drugs at a higher rate than the other.

Spokane is following Oregon's lead

The city of Spokane now joins Oregon, which recently announced statewide measures to vacate similar offences. Meanwhile in Colorado, successful efforts to appeal marijuana misdemeanors have opened the door for legislation to clear criminal records.

However, things look less optimistic in another legal state, Alaska, where convictions for cannabis can only be overturned by getting a pardon from the governor.

And that's unlikely to change, says John Skidmore, director of the Alaska Department of Law's Criminal Division. In September, he told Alaska Dispatch News, "Just because an act is legal now does not mean it was okay to violate the law in the past."

In the community of legal states, at least, that's becoming the minority view.

h/t Alaska Dispatch News, Huffington Post, Go Local PDX, New York Times, Spokesman


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