People busted for small-time pot possession get a break from state Legislature

OLYMPIA, Wash. — About 69,000 convictions for misdemeanor possession of marijuana in Washington would be wiped out under a bill that both chambers of the Washington state Legislature have approved.

The House voted 69-29 Tuesday to approve SB 5605, which 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. The bill returns to the Senate for agreement with a House amendment and then moves to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature.

“This proved you can do transformative justice reform issues and it’s a bipartisan thing,” said the bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-White Center. “Our unjust laws of the past shouldn’t hold you back from being successful in the future.”

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

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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.

“Unfortunately, having a criminal conviction on your record has quite a prejudicial effect on someone’s future in terms of employment and housing and education,” said Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland. “In this case, the bill would remove a conviction for activity that was once illegal but is now legal. It seems to be fair to relieve them of that burden so they can move on with their lives. This is an very important bill for re-entry, to reintegrate into the community successfully.”

Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, said he understood what backers of the bill said about helping people get a fresh start at a time when recreational marijuana use is legal for those 21 and older in the state.

But Orcutt said employers with a “no tolerance policy” for drugs would want to know if people had marijuana possession convictions.

“That gives me some insight into that person’s character that if they will violate the law against using marijuana, will they violate my company’s policy against using drugs?” he said. “I think that’s an important piece of information to an employer. I think they have the right to know that — and I don’t think it should be easily expunged from the record.”

The House Appropriations Committee amended the bill earlier this month to clarify that it also applies to misdemeanor marijuana possession offenses charged under municipal ordinances as well as state law.

“The vast majority of these misdemeanor offenses were committed in urban areas under municipal codes,” said Goodman, who is chairman of the House Public Safety Committee.

Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, the West Seattle Democrat who sponsored the House version of the bill, said he had the idea for the bill after the passage of I-502 in 2012 legalized the purchase and recreational use of marijuana in limited circumstances for those 21 and older.

“The King and Pierce County prosecutors chose to dismiss all pending marijuana misdemeanor possession charges in their jurisdictions. I thought that was a great step. The voters no longer felt the possession of small amounts of marijuana should be a crime for people 21 and over,” he said when the House Public Safety Committee approved it.

The House on Tuesday rejected one amendment to the bill.

The amendment from Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, would have given the court the discretion to vacate the record of a misdemeanor marijuana possession conviction, instead of requiring it to do so.