Washington Governor Inslee Introduces Marijuana Justice Initiative

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Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced his Marijuana Justice Initiative last Friday, January 4, 2019,at the Cannabis Alliance‘s annual Cannabis Summit. The initiative will provide for an expedited clemency process for people with a marijuana misdemeanor conviction and no other convictions—which the Governor said should affect approximately 3500 individuals. The initiative is a small step in the right direction and earned Governor Inslee a standing ovation at the summit, but it also left some advocates wishing for more.

As you may know, our firm cares passionately about the plight of those negatively impacted by the failed War on Drugs, which disproportionately affected people of color and disadvantaged those same people from taking advantage of the promises of a new cannabis industry. Many jurisdictions such as Seattle have already taken steps to vacate marijuana offenses in recognition of past injustice. And Washington, despite being one of the first states to legalize cannabis, has been sorely lagging behind other states in policies around cannabis and criminal justice reform.

Oregon voters legalized cannabis statewide in 2014 and, since then, the state has passed reforms reducing most marijuana offenses and allowing cannabis convictions––including felonies––to be expunged. Under Oregon law, when individuals apply to have their cannabis-related convictions expunged, the conviction and underlying crime will be considered as if it had occurred today, not pre-legalization. The Oregon State Police estimated that this would affect over 78,000 individuals.

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Similar reforms in Washington have been proposed, but so far the state has little to show for it, aside from local efforts such as Seattle’s, which was only for municipal offenses and not felonies or misdemeanors prosecuted by King County. In the legislature, bills dating back to 2009 have repeatedly been introduced to automatically vacate marijuana misdemeanor offenses (analogous to expungement), but none have made it out of committee. The most recent iteration was HB 1260 last year, which is expected to be introduced again this year. The likelihood of it passing is probably slim, since it carries a fiscal note of approximately $440,000. More likely to pass is HB 1041, which doesn’t automatically vacate offenses, so individuals must submit their own motions, but it does have a financial impact of $0.

Governor Inslee’s initiative is limited to individuals with a single marijuana misdemeanor conviction and no other conviction, which is why the number that will be affected (3500) is so low. Those who have any other conviction will have to go through the normal clemency process. Even an individual with two marijuana misdemeanors will not qualify under the initiative. It is difficult to know exactly why he made the initiative so restrictive. He could have made it apply to all marijuana misdemeanors if the individual has no other convictions, or he could have removed the no-other-convictions requirement entirely, which would have positively impacted tens of thousands of Washingtonians.

It is well known at this point that Governor Inslee plans to run for US president, so he may have not wanted an initiative that was too progressive, although in today’s climate it is difficult to imagine this initiative having a serious impact on his chances. It is also possible that his office was concerned about the cost the initiative would have incurred had it been much broader.

Nevertheless, we will not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and we heartily embrace Governor Inslee’s initiative. He could very well have done nothing. Those affected by his initiative will be largely poor and disproportionately people of color. These people don’t make large campaign donations and they don’t have expensive lobbyists. With that in mind, we applaud Governor Inslee’s decision.