Politics & Government

Misdemeanor marijuana convictions could be erased under bill passed by state Senate

About 69,000 convictions for misdemeanor possession of marijuana in Washington could be taken off the books under a bill the state Senate approved Monday.

“Convictions create an extreme hardship for folks, whether it’s through housing or educational opportunities or even being able to be with their young kids to field trips at schools,” said the bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-White Center.

Nguyen said laws making marijuana illegal were part of a “failed war on drugs that disproportionately impacted communities of color and low-income folks.”

The Senate voted 29-19 to approve the bill, which moves to the House.

SB 5605 would require the sentencing court to vacate a conviction for misdemeanor marijuana possession if the person applying was 21 or older at the time of the offense.

People whose convictions are cleared then would be able to write on employment or housing applications that they never have been convicted of that offense.

In 1998, Washington voters approved I-692 to allow the medical use of marijuana. In 2012, I-502 legalized the purchase and recreational use of marijuana in limited circumstances for those 21 and older.

The State Patrol has said 58,864 individuals with 68,543 misdemeanor marijuana convictions would be eligible to have them cleared.

The Administrative Office of the Courts looked at a snapshot from 2005 through 2018 and estimated 43,506 individuals would be eligible.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, attempted unsuccessfully to amend the bill to restrict the number of people eligible for their convictions being vacated.

“There’s no limit on the number of convictions that could be wiped away,” Padden said.

Padden’s amendment said for offenses that occurred prior to the bill becoming law, people would have up to one year to apply to the court. Those with convictions after the effective date of the law also would have had one year to apply for vacation of a conviction.

Nguyen said there was no need to change the bill.

“This is something that has been legalized by the vote of the people,” he said.

Democrats also defeated an amendment by Sen. Jeff Holy, R-Cheney, that would have barred applicants from getting their convictions wiped out if they already had two or more other misdemeanor convictions vacated.

Holy said he opposed the bill’s “carte blanche, across-the-board, wholesale getting rid of all of the convictions out there.”

“This bothers me that we’re allowing somebody a free pass after this type of misbehavior for such an extended period of time,” he said.

Padden said without the amendment, someone could have dozens of misdemeanor convictions vacated. He also noted that in some cases, people could have been charged with a felony marijuana charge for dealing marijuana, but prosecutors later reduced it to a misdemeanor under a plea agreement.

“Maybe the evidence was a little weak, or a witness is gone because of the length of time or whatever, so the prosecution plea bargains it down to a misdemeanor,” he said.

Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, opposed the amendment. Kuderer said prosecutors don’t do plea bargains for cases they could have won. They do so because evidence didn’t support the charge.

“I don’t know of any prosecutor that would not charge a crime if they have solid evidence on it,” she said.

Nguyen also opposed the amendment, saying lawmakers should not erect “arbitrary barriers to rectify the wrongs of crimes that have been overturned by the people.”

Gov. Jay Inslee announced on Jan. 4 that he was offering pardons to adults whose only conviction was a misdemeanor marijuana possession. The conviction under state law had to be between Jan. 1, 1998 and the effective date of I-502, which was Dec. 5, 2012. The governor’s office estimated about 3,500 people would be eligible for pardons, which do not vacate a conviction.

So far, 17 orders have been issued, and two more are awaiting the governor’s signature, said Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee.