Recreational cannabis has been legal in Washington State since 2012, and medical use has been legal since 1998.
In 2003, Seattle voted in favour of Initiative 75, making cannabis possession arrests the lowest priority for law enforcement.
Between 1996 and 2010, over 500 people were convicted for misdemeanour cannabis possession, 46% of which were African Americans.
This disproportional representation has led all seven of Seattle’s municipal court judges to agree to vacate the charges accrued in the 14 year period.
The motion was brought forward by City Attorney Pete Holmes and was not subject to opposition.
In his motion, Holmes stated that “according to a report by the ACLU, African-Americans are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than Caucasians, even though both groups consume marijuana at similar rates.”
Holmes also noted some of the negative consequences these charges can have on employment opportunities, education options, qualification of government benefits, and immigration status.
As Canada approaches its final days of cannabis prohibition, it raises the question of how our government will approach amnesty for prior possession charges.
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Cannabis amnesty in Canada
“For something like this to happen in Canada, you would need the legislature to decide on it and that would be put into place through parliament,” Annamaria Enenajor, a criminal defence lawyer and campaign director for Cannabis Amnesty, told Daily Hive over the phone.
“In the United States there is a difference between federal crimes and state crimes and in Canada, we only have one criminal code that applies across the country so we don’t have that same flexibility.”
While provinces don’t have the authority to vacate criminal records, Enenajor said that “the impetus to write a historical wrong exists in Canada as well.”
It is estimated that over 500, 000 Canadians are living with a criminal record due to cannabis possession in quantities that will no longer be illegal as of October 17.
As with our neighbours to the south, “people of colour, particularly African-Canadians are most disproportionately represented in the prosecution of drug crimes, simple possession of cannabis being one of them,” said Enenajor.
Due to our legislative structure and criminal code, the process for vacating records is more complicated here than in the US.
“You can get a court to easily strike down a piece of legislation but when you’re asking a government to formulate a policy that is just and equitable and contains various unique aspects such as a records expungement for people who have under a specific number of grams, that’s more of a policy decision, more of a complicated legislative function as opposed to an adjudicative function, so we look to the legislature to do that,” said Enenajor.
“It has to go through a number of different readings and committees to be studied so that adds to the complexity of it.”
In terms of how fast this process can happen, Enenajor said it depends on political appetite.
“The Liberals may be of the opinion that they have used their goodwill for cannabis sufficiently and now want to move away from the issue. So we don’t know what their appetite to legislate in this area is.”
NDP calls for cannabis amnesty
On October 3, NDP MP Murray Rankin announced his plan to introduce a private member’s bill for cannabis amnesty.
“I believe that it’s critical that Canadians who have criminal records for something that in two short weeks will be perfectly legal no longer suffer the burden of having a criminal record.”
“My goal in bringing this forward is not to necessarily proceed with it. I hope to hand it over to the government and have them run with it,” said Rankin “It’s a question of justice, and not a partisan issue.”
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh called the proposed legislation “a bold step forward that will provide justice for Canadians.”
“We believe that these individuals should not only be pardoned or have record suspension but that their records should be, in fact, expunged,” said Enenajor, who stood alongside Singh and Rankin.
The bill will be introduced in Parliament on Thursday, October 4.