Politics & Government

68,543 misdemeanor pot convictions could be wiped away under bills in the Legislature

Misdemeanor marijuana convictions for thousands might be erased under legislation before the Washington Legislature.
Misdemeanor marijuana convictions for thousands might be erased under legislation before the Washington Legislature. Olympian file photo

An estimated 68,543 convictions for misdemeanor possession of marijuana in Washington state could be wiped out under legislation lawmakers are debating.

The identical bills, SB 5605 and HB 1500, 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.

“What we’re doing today is really righting the wrong of injustice that has happened in the past,” the bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-White Center, told a Senate committee on Tuesday. “Often times, in our marijuana convictions, it has disproportionately impacted communities of color. Really all we are asking for is things that are legal now should be vacated from people’s previous convictions.”

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

Nguyen told the committee that an estimated 200,000 misdemeanor possession convictions would be eligible to be vacated under the bills.

A spokeswoman for the State Patrol said the number provided for the bill fiscal analysis was incorrect due to a calculation error.

There are currently 58,864 individuals with 68,543 misdemeanor marijuana convictions.

“The reason the number of individuals is less than the number of convictions is because some of the 58,864 had more than one conviction,” said Captain Monica Alexander.

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs on Tuesday outlined its opposition to SB 5605 before the Senate Law and Justice Committee, as it did last week when the House Public Safety Committee heard testimony on HB 1500. Both bills might be voted out of committee on Thursday.

James McMahan, the association’s policy director, said unlike current law, the bills don’t limit the number of misdemeanor possession convictions that a person can get vacated.

He also raised the possibility that those initially charged with possessing pot to sell it could benefit.

“It’s important to us that many misdemeanor marijuana possession cases didn’t always start out as possession cases; a lot of those, but certainly not all. A lot of them started out as possession with intent to deliver,” McMahan said. “That is a very different circumstance in our view. This bill does not take into consideration those. This bill does not take into consideration the behavior of the person since they had the misdemeanor marijuana conviction. Currently law already does.”

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, noted that in some cases, people could have been charged with a felony marijuana charge, but prosecutors later reduced it to a misdemeanor under a plea agreement.

“Sometimes the state doesn’t have the greatest case. But also, sometimes they can’t take every case to trial because there isn’t enough time or judges,” Padden said.

McMahan said the state already provides two options for those who are convicted of misdemeanor possession charges and want to get their record cleaned.

In the first option, people can apply to get their conviction record wiped out, according to a legislative staff report, but the sentencing court is barred from approving the requests if:

Criminal charges are pending.

Fewer than three years have passed since the applicant completed the sentence.

The applicant has been convicted of a new crime since the date of conviction.

The applicant hasn’t had the record of another prior conviction vacated.

Option 2 would be a pardon from the governor.

On Jan. 4, Gov. Jay Inslee announced 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, more than 160 people have applied. As of late last week, 13 have received pardons, according to Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee.

Inslee supports the Senate and House bills, Lee said. In response to a question from The News Tribune, Lee said she wasn’t sure if the measures preclude the need for pardons from the governor, “but if it did, that would not be a problem.”

Lee added in an email: “The governor has said all along that we should not be punishing people for crimes that are no longer illegal.”