Questions raised about bill to vacate pot records

SEATTLE — A bill that would allow people to have their Washington state misdemeanor marijuana convictions vacated drew some interesting objections Wednesday at a hearing in Olympia.

Democratic Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon of Burien told the House Public Safety Committee that after Initiative 502 passed, allowing adults over 21 to have up to an ounce of marijuana under state law, he started thinking about the thousands of people who have criminal records for activity that is now legal — criminal records that can keep people from getting jobs, housing or loans.

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

Fitzgibbon’s bill would allow them to petition to have their convictions quickly vacated, rather than waiting the three years after completing their sentence that people typically have to wait before making such a request, he said. Since 2008, he said, 1,828 people in Washington have faced misdemeanor convictions where marijuana possession was their only offense.

“This is a bill about giving them a second chance,” Fitzgibbon said.

But the head of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Tom McBride, noted that the bill would allow people to have their convictions erased even if they had more marijuana than I-502 allows. Misdemeanor pot possession has historically been defined as up to 40 grams, and even under I-502, it’s still a misdemeanor to have between 28 grams — the equivalent of an ounce — and 40 grams.

McBride argued that people convicted of misdemeanor pot crimes before I-502 took effect last December don’t deserve special treatment: The law was the law, he said, and they broke it.

“I understand for some people marijuana is special,” McBride said. “It’s not that special for me.”

Candice Bock of the Association of Washington Cities expressed similar concerns, noting that people convicted in the future of misdemeanor marijuana possession for having more than an ounce but less than 40 grams would be able to immediately petition to have their convictions vacated. The same would be true for those under 21 who are convicted of having less than 40 grams of marijuana.

“Is that really what you intend to do with this bill?” she asked.

Nevertheless, the measure drew enthusiastic support from the pro-pot lobby. Ezra Eickmeyer, with the Washington Cannabis Association, said it’s “one of our favorite bills we’ve seen introduced on cannabis this session.”

“It was a moral injustice for anybody to ever put anyone in jail in the first place for possession of cannabis,” he said.

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