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Washington became one of the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use in 2012. But there are a lot of challenges ahead: the state must set up a licensing system for marijuana growers and sellers, the federal government may mount a challenge, the need to set a new limit on amount of marijuana in the bloodstream for safe driving. And medical marijuana is still in the picture.Over the next several months we will be exploring the issue and tracking the impact of I-502.

Seattle asks judge to dismiss 542 pot convictions

Marijuana plants are shown in the flowering room at Grow Ambrosia in Seattle
KUOW Photos/Megan Farmer
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File: Marijuana plants are shown in the flowering room at Grow Ambrosia in Seattle

A Seattle municipal court judge will decide if hundreds of marijuana convictions should be vacated after a request from Pete Holmes, the city attorney. 

If approved by the court, 542 people convicted of marijuana possession would have their records affected.

Holmes filed a motion Friday asking the court to vacate convictions and dismiss charges for marijuana possession for people who were prosecuted by the City of Seattle from 1997 to 2010.

The city attorney’s filing is likely drawing attention from outside the city, said Roger Roffman, professor emeritus at the University of Washington’s Social Work. “I have no doubt that city attorneys and state attorneys general throughout the country are aware of Pete Holmes and pay attention to what he says and what he does,” Roffman said.

Roffman has studied and written about marijuana for decades and said he believes other cities will follow suit. “I suspect that Pete's leadership in trying to rectify what has been done in the past will have a big influence."

In the motion, Holmes writes that African-Americans are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for possession than whites.

That disproportionality is well established, he argues, and now that marijuana is legal in Washington, dismissing the cases is in the best interest of equity and justice. 

Criminal convictions can limit job and housing opportunities. For non-citizens, it can mean potential deportation. Roffman says it’s a good first step. People who have been arrested, maybe jailed, face barriers that "can never be erased," Roffman said. 

“But one of the good things about our justice system when it's working is when mistakes are identified they can be rectified,” he said.

The motion to vacate makes good on a promise Holmes made alongside Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan in February.

At the time, Durkan said the war on drugs has devastated people. “This action is a necessary first step in righting the wrongs of the past and putting our progressive values into action,” Durkan said.