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Free clinic at Hempfest can help people vacate old pot convictions

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Adrian Florez

Hempfest, Seattle's long-running cannabis "protestival," starts Friday. Among the booths representing political causes and legal weed businesses, one law firm will host a free legal clinic to help those with past drug convictions.

Washington voters legalized recreational marijuana in 2012. But pot convictions from before that time can still haunt people looking for housing or jobs.

"They're literally like economic bullets to the head," said Aaron Pelley, an attorney at Cultiva Law in Seattle.

Cultiva will be hosting a free clinic Friday and Saturday at Hempfest. Pelley says the legal team can provide guidance on a variety of issues, but will focus on helping people vacate nonviolent drug convictions.

Vacating a conviction keeps it from showing up on Washington State Patrol background checks (although it can still be found through other kinds of checks). People with vacated convictions also are allowed to tell potential employers or landlords that they have never been convicted of a crime.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jay Inslee offered pardons to thousands with midemeanor pot convictions. State lawmakers expanded on that offer by widening the pool of people who could have their convictions vacated, which would add to any gubernatorial pardon. Those expanded rules went into effect last month.

But Pelley says those efforts fail to address the often cumbersome process of vacating a conviction. It requires legal paperwork and court appearances, and the process can vary depending on where someone was convicted.

"It's just something that a normal person wouldn't know by Googling around," Pelley said. "It's a little bit too daunting for your normal individual, and it's just a little bit out of reach for people in low-income situations."

A legal clinic like the one Cultiva is putting on at Hempfest can help guide people in the right direction. Pelley recommends that anyone who plans on stopping by should first get a record of their criminal history from WSP, if they can. It costs $11 to order online.

The 28th annual Hempfest begins Friday and runs through Sunday at Myrtle Edwards and Centennial parks along Seattle's waterfront.

A Seattle native and former knkx intern, Simone Alicea has returned to the Pacific Northwest from covering breaking news at the Chicago Sun-Times. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.