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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: City should drop misdemeanor pot judgments

The war against marijuana is over in the state of Washington – for now – and it’s time to heal some of the wounded.

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart has proposed a change in the city’s municipal code that would allow those convicted of misdemeanor marijuana possession before July 2014 to have those judgments wiped from their criminal records.

Judgments, not the charges. The difference is one of the nuances built into the measure, which council members should approve when it goes before them Nov. 9.

Stuckart says the proposal was the result of research done for the racial equity subcommittee – he’s the chairman – of the Spokane County Law and Justice Council.

Convictions for people of color were greatly disproportionate compared with their representation in the population, which is also characteristic of findings for all of Washington.

Drug convictions, no matter how minor, shadow individuals for years, affecting the availability of housing or some kinds of federal assistance, for example.

If the council approves the proposed ordinance, the record of those convictions will be vacated. The charges will remain; tracks for those doing background checks, but not necessarily disqualifying.

Only those whose cases originated in Spokane Municipal Court would be eligible. Felony charges originating in District Court, but bargained down to misdemeanors, would not be subject to relief.

About 1,800 individuals with convictions going back to 1997 could get their convictions tossed, but the initiative will have to be theirs. The dismissals are not automatic with passage of the ordinance, and it may be that many will be unaware of the change in law or unwilling to make the relatively minor effort to clear their names if the convictions have had no adverse affect on their lives.

Spokane is the first Washington city to consider dismissing pre-2014 misdemeanor marijuana charges. A bill that would make relief available statewide died after a single hearing before the House Public Safety Committee.

Apparently, the representatives were not listening. Several states, including Oregon and California, have passed measures that provide for dismissals. Oregon, where recreational use of marijuana became legal July 1, will allow those convicted on minor charges to expunge the record; even the arrest will not show up during a background check.

That provision of the law takes effect Jan. 1.

As the proposed Spokane ordinance notes, a majority of city residents – and a majority in every council district – supported Initiative 502, which legalized recreational marijuana use. Criminalization of mere possession of small amounts never served any useful purpose. Nor does preserving the record of misdemeanor convictions, the after-effects of which continue to plague many now law-abiding citizens.

It’s high time the city moved on, especially with the potential a future administration might be less accommodating of state marijuana laws that violate federal statutes.

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