By Alex Dobuzinskis
(Reuters) - Washington state will create a streamlined system to pardon people convicted of misdemeanour marijuana possession before the drug was legal, under an initiative launched on Friday by Governor Jay Inslee, who is considering a run for U.S. president.
Voters in Washington state and Colorado in 2012 made their two states the first in the United States to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Since then, eight other states have followed suit, while more than 30 states allow the use of medical marijuana. Federal law still bans cannabis.
"We shouldn't be punishing people for something that is no longer illegal in Washington state," Inslee, a Democrat, said in a written statement.
Under the governor's so-called Marijuana Justice Initiative, anyone with a single misdemeanour marijuana conviction in Washington state between 1998 and 2012 could apply for a pardon.
An estimated 3,500 people are eligible, according to Inslee's office.
Some people with past convictions have faced obstacles in applying for jobs and housing.
Racial disparities in the prosecution of marijuana offences have hurt African Americans and other minorities, and civil rights groups have pushed politicians to take up the issue.
"This (action by Inslee) is a necessary first step for repairing the racially disparate harms of marijuana prohibition," Jolene Forman, a senior staff attorney with the Drug Policy Alliance, which has long pushed for pot legalization, said in a statement.
Since 2014, at least 10 states have passed laws to expunge certain marijuana convictions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
A measure in the Washington state legislature that would have erased certain misdemeanour marijuana convictions failed to pass last year.
In the absence of that legislation, Inslee exercised his executive authority to create a pardon system, said his spokeswoman Jaime Smith. It applies only to people with a single conviction because officials did not want to be overwhelmed with applications, she said.
Brad Klippert, a Republican member of the state House of Representatives, said he would have preferred the governor pardon only the most "extreme cases."
"I personally think it's a horrible idea because marijuana is a very dangerous drug and that's why it's still illegal according to the federal government," he said.
Washington state law, before legalization, had classified possession of less than 40 grams of marijuana as a misdemeanour, with larger amounts treated as a felony.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Rosalba O'Brien)