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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Weed Out Pot Convictions

Legislature should expand on Inslee pardons, let misdemeanors be vacated

The Columbian
Published: January 17, 2019, 6:03am

Gov. Jay Inslee’s move to offer pardons for people haunted by old marijuana convictions is a good first step, but it does not go far enough. The Legislature should expand upon the governor’s efforts and provide justice for even more Washington residents.

Inslee announced last week a plan to pardon anybody who has a sole conviction for marijuana possession while at least 21 years old and who otherwise has a clean criminal record. Washington residents convicted under state law between Jan. 1, 1998, and Dec. 5, 2012, can fill out a petition on the website of the governor’s office in order to secure a pardon. That allows them to bypass the more laborious process of making a request to the state Clemency and Pardons Board.

The move reflects evolving public opinion about marijuana. Washington voters approved Initiative 502 in 2012 with 56 percent of the vote, allowing for recreational marijuana use by adults 21 and older (the measure was opposed by 50.3 percent of Clark County voters). “We shouldn’t be punishing people for something that is no longer illegal behavior in the state of Washington,” Inslee said.

The pardons will apply only to those convicted under state law, not local jurisdictions, and the governor’s office estimates that about 3,500 people will be eligible. But a 2017 analysis from the Washington State Patrol indicated that there are about 226,000 misdemeanor convictions for marijuana possession that show up on people’s criminal records.

That can be burdensome for residents. Low-level convictions appear on background checks and can hinder Washingtonians’ ability to secure housing or land certain jobs — all for something that is now legal in the state.

A pardon will provide limited benefits. Residents who have been pardoned still will have to answer “yes” to the question of whether they have ever been convicted of a crime, although they can explain they have been pardoned. “A pardon is going to have less impact than if one would have vacated a conviction,” Tip Wonhoff, deputy general counsel to the governor’s office, told The (Longview) Daily News. “We recognize the limits of a pardon, but it is better than nothing.” Sharon Whitson, general manager of Seattle Hempfest, told The Seattle Times: “While it’s a wonderful gesture, it won’t pardon everybody. They really need to look at it all the way up the scale.”

Because of that, lawmakers should consider a proposal from Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Seattle, that would address thousands of cases left out of the governor’s initiative. Fitzgibbon says he will introduce a bill this year that would require sentencing courts to grant any request to vacate a misdemeanor marijuana conviction. A similar bill in 2017 failed to make it out of committee.

In considering Fitzgibbon’s bill or similar proposals, lawmakers must question the benefits of maintaining misdemeanor marijuana convictions. While marijuana was illegal at the time of the conviction, there is little to be gained from continuing to hold people accountable for something that society has since determined should be a matter of personal choice.

We are not talking about felony convictions or penalties for dealing drugs. The state has a vested interest in accountability for those who break the law, but low-level marijuana offenses can carry a penalty that exceeds the crime.

Easing the path to vacating marijuana convictions in Washington would help serve the interest of justice in our state.