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Washington State Vacates House Bill to Waive Marijuana Misdemeanors

by Hannah Leone, published

marijuana misdemeanors Zack Frank /

A bill that would have waived misdemeanor marijuana offenses for adults ages 21 and older died in the Washington State House of Representatives. Share it: Tweet

Washington State House Bill 1661, which passed to the rules committee for a second reading on March 1, never made it to the House floor. It would have allowed all adults convicted of a marijuana misdemeanor before recreational use was legalized in Washington to apply to the sentencing court for a vacation of their charges.

Although the bill won’t make it into law this year,  sponsor Representative Joe Fitzgibbons said it was well-received.

"It started a good conversation,” Fitzgibbons said. “We are going to have to take another shot at it next year."

Representative Kevin Parker, the ranking minority member who opposed the bill, was unavailable for comment.

When marijuana became legal in Washington, many prosecutors waived misdemeanor charges people had incurred before legalization. Fitzgibbons said this was a courageous thing to do and the correct decision, knowing the voters of Washington did not believe possession of small amounts should be a crime.

Fitzgibbons estimated that a couple hundred people were affected by that decision:

"That got me thinking about all of the people who have that conviction on their record today, who have that as a barrier for them every time they try to go get a job or housing or education. There is something that we, as a legislature, can do to give them a fresh start."

Although it is unclear exactly how many people could be affected by House Bill 1661,  since 2008, 19,367 misdemeanor marijuana convictions occurred in Washington, Fitzgibbons reported in a February 20 hearing before the House Public Safety Committee. Of those misdemeanors, 1,828 were the only charges those people faced.

Fitzgibbons started to gather support from both parties right away, although most of his supporters are democrats, he said.

"For the most part, the response I got from other legislators was 'well obviously we should do this,'" he said.

Yet, Fitzgibbons is not surprised the bill died this year.

The bill did not die written as it was born and Fitzgibbons does not expect the bill he reintroduces next year to pass unchanged.

The original bill would have removed restrictions on vacating misdemeanor marijuana charges for all adults, but was amended in an early committee to include only adults 21 and older.

"Because possession is now only legal for those 21 and up, it makes sense that we would synchronize the ages,” Fitzgibbons said.

A change Fitzgibbons hopes to revert next year is the bill’s amendment to include only misdemeanor charges of possession of 28 grams or less, the now-legal amount in Washington. Misdemeanor charges include possession of up to 40 grams.

Before recreational marijuana was legalized in Washington, the exact amount people were caught with was not always recorded in their misdemeanor charges, so limiting the bill this way would block a number of people who should have their charges vacated, Fitzgibbons argues.

In Colorado, the only other state to legalize recreational marijuana in the 2012 election, a task force published a 100-page document of recommendations for marijuana policy in the state. The “State of Colorado Task Force Report on the Implementation of Amendment 64” outlines best practices for industry oversight, funding and enforcement, consumer protection, and youth prevention and treatment programs.

“Members of the Task Force concluded their work with the understanding that, for good or ill, they had played an historic role in the evolution of marijuana policy in the United States,” concludes the introduction by Chief Legal Counselor Jack Finlaw and Executive Director Barbara Brohl.

Fitzgibbons has not contacted legislators in Colorado about the bill, but said he is sure a similar policy could work there.

As the life and death of 1661 may suggest, marijuana legalization is not simple. It requires a new approach and new policies.

Washington recently selected Mark Kleiman as its marijuana consultant. He will not be on the state's payroll, but he and his firm, Massachusetts-based Botec Analysis Corporation, will advise Washington policy makers about how to best regulate Cannabis. Kleiman expects a contract to be drawn up within the next week.

Thirty different people in four different firms will answer questions for the Washington State Liquor Control Board, in what Kleiman called a "decision-support assignment." Kleiman outlined some of the questions he and Botec will try to answer.

"What decisions does the board have to make? Of those decisions, what are the options? Of those options what are the likely consequences?" Klieman said. "We will help them make their choices."

Kleiman can't say his opinion on House Bill 1661, but he commented on the challenges of state laws that contradict federal statutes.

"Obviously Congress and the executive branch confront a complicated situation," he said.

Fitzgibbons hopes Washington State House Bill 1661 will one day help the people of Washington state who have misdemeanor marijuana convictions on their records.

"They should have a chance to wipe the slate clean," Fitzgibbons said.

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