Jars of marijuana

In most circumstances, marijuana possession and sale have gone from being crimes to a regulated commercial activity in Washington state. Many of those previously convicted of marijuana-related offenses can now apply to the governor for a pardon.

OLYMPIA — Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a new initiative to pardon misdemeanor marijuana convictions. The initiative could benefit an estimated 3,500 Washington residents who were convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana before it was legalized in late 2012.

“We shouldn’t be punishing people for something that is no longer illegal in Washington state. Forgiving these convictions can help lessen their impact and allow people to move on with their lives,” Inslee said on Jan. 4.

Before and after

Before Initiative 502 legalized recreational marijuana in late 2012, it was against state law to possess even small amounts of pot. A person caught with any amount up to 40 grams (equal to 1.4 ounces) of pot could be convicted of a misdemeanor. Now, a person may keep up to about 28 grams (one ounce) of bud for personal use. It is still a misdemeanor to possess any amount between 28 and 40 grams, and it is a Class C felony to possess more than 40 grams.

Prior to legalization, police in Washington made thousands of marijuana-related contacts each year. In 2012, there were 6,336 contacts, about 91 percent of which were related to possession or consumption. The numbers quickly dropped after it became legal in December of that year. In 2015, there were 2,313 pot-related police contacts, 86 percent of which were for possession or consumption.

Clemency for the (mostly) clean-cut

Inslee’s initiative is designed to help a small subset of people with pot convictions — those who have never been in any other trouble with the law. To be eligible for clemency, applicants must have been convicted as adults and prosecuted under state law, not a local ordinance. The conviction must have occurred between Jan. 1, 1998 and Dec. 5, 2012, and it must be the only conviction on the applicant’s record.

In a press release published on the Medium website, Inslee’s office said the initiative reflects the state government’s evolving attitude toward marijuana, and aims to make life easier for those who are still facing consequences for doing something that isn’t considered criminal anymore.

“These misdemeanor convictions can be over a decade old, but still create barriers to housing, employment, student loans, credit scores and even the ability to participate in a child or grandchild’s school field trip,” the release said. “A pardon of a marijuana possession conviction can reduce these barriers.”

Racial injustice

Another reason for pardoning minor pot convictions is that pot laws have never been applied fairly. In a June 2018 paper, University of Washington researcher Caislin Firth said people in different racial and ethnic groups use pot at similar rates, but people of color are far more likely to get convicted of related crimes. Before legalization, African Americans in Washington were 2.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites were.

While legalization has greatly reduced the overall number of pot arrests, preliminary evidence suggests that it has done nothing to address racial disparities. According to Firth, “Though the disparity in marijuana possession between African American/blacks and whites was reduced slightly after legalization, the disparity for selling marijuana has more than doubled since legalization.”

The racial disparities are not limited to Washington. Nationwide, African Americans are about 3.8 times more likely to be arrested for possession. Studies in Colorado and Oregon — two other states that legalized pot around the same time as Washington — found blacks were accused of pot crimes far more often than whites. In some cases, the disparities have gotten even worse. According to Firth, “Oregon legalized marijuana in 2014 and in the following year the disparity between African Americans/blacks and whites persisted. Specifically, the rate of arrest was 77 percent higher among African Americans/Blacks in 2015 when compared to whites.”

What to do

For more information, or to apply for a pardon, go to https://www.governor.wa.gov/marijuanajustice.

Applicants can fill out an electronic form to get the process started. According to the Office of the Governor, applications will be processed in the order in which they are received, so the process could take several weeks.

Receiving a pardon is not the same as having a conviction vacated. The conviction will no longer appear on criminal background records that are available to the public, but law enforcement officers will still be able to see it. It will not erase or seal court records either. Pardon recipients cannot claim they have never been convicted of a crime, but they can say they received a special pardon from the Governor.

“A pardon is simply an official act of the governor forgiving a conviction,” the press release said.

Natalie St. John is a staff writer for the Chinook Observer. Contact her at 360-642-8181 or nstjohn@chinookobserver.com.

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