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Who still pays the price for marijuana crimes now that pot's legal?

caption: Seattle musician Yirim Seck was arrested for selling pot in the decade before it was legalized
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1 of 4 Seattle musician Yirim Seck was arrested for selling pot in the decade before it was legalized
KUOW Photos / Megan Farmer

KUOW listener Christine Bryant Cohen wants to know who's doing time for what she does for a living: selling pot.

"I'm interested in that because I'm a person working in the legal cannabis industry,” Cohen said. “I get a W2, I pay federal taxes.”

KUOW took Cohen's question to the State Department of Corrections. Officials there say 7.4 percent of prisoners in Washington state are in prison for drug crimes, which they also point out is lower than the national state average of around 15 percent.

How many are in prisons specifically for marijuana crimes? Corrections doesn't know. Officials there cite the way state law is written, because it tends to lump drug crimes together.

But Cohen's question isn't really just about data points, it's also about justice and who is still paying the price for pot crimes.

“I'm a white woman from a middle class background. And the majority of people who have been convicted and arrested and done time for selling cannabis and growing cannabis are people of color, they're poor people," Cohen said. "That inequity really sticks with me."

Musician Yirim Seck knows about that inequity.

In the decade before pot was legalized, he was arrested and convicted of selling pot. Seck spent years working on getting his record expunged, but he still calls it “a blemish that will just never go away.”

Seck's African-American, and he thinks race was probably a factor in his arrest: "Mostly the people who are hit with these infractions are all people from communities of color. We've been deliberately blocked out."

Having a record for a pot conviction makes it hard to find work, and hard to find a place to live: "I was constantly paying application fees for them to run my record,” Seck said, “and being denied housing opportunities.”

Recreational marijuana advocates said a legal pot market would lead to fewer stories like Seck's. And while that prediction has mostly turned out to be true, the story is complicated.

On the plus side, the number of people arrested for pot crimes has plummeted 86 percent since it was legalized, according to new data compiled by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a nonprofit that aims to reduce incarceration rates.

But even though far fewer black people are being arrested, the racial gap is now a bit worse. In a forthcoming report, the center finds that black people were twice as likely to be arrested for pot crimes in 2016 as other groups — and that's actually up from the year before a recreational market was created here for marijuana.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan thinks this bias is a problem that needs to be solved, and calls the war on drugs a failure that "had implicit racial bias in it."

So last week Durkan and Seattle city attorney Pete Holmes announced a plan "to vacate convictions and dismiss charges for all misdemeanor marijuana possession.”

But the plan would not help people like Seck, who were convicted of marijuana felonies before a legal marijuana market was created. It would only affect people convicted of minor pot crimes in Seattle Municipal Court.

The city says in the end only a few hundred people are likely to benefit. But statewide, well over 200,000 people still have records for minor possession charges. For all of them to have a chance for their records to be vacated or expunged, the state would need to act.

Bills like that have been proposed at the state level for several years running, but so far, they’ve failed to get out of committee.

Christine Cohen says she’s disappointed that state lawmakers have failed to act but she's happy that Seattle's finally doing something: "I think that's great news. If anything it's a great start. There's a lot more that can be done.”


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