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Legalization Passed, But Should Old Marijuana Convictions Stay?

Elaine Thompson
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In the years before Washington and Oregon legalized recreational pot for adults, thousands of people were convicted of misdemeanor marijuana possession.

Now Washington state lawmakers are considering whether to make it simple to expunge that crime, which is no longer a crime, from a person's record. The same issue could also come up in Oregon as the legislature examines implementation of its voter-approved legalization measure.

The proposed bill in the Washington House would allow people busted with a small amount of marijuana to ask the court to throw out the misdemeanor conviction if they were over 21 at the time of the offense.

Neither Washington nor Oregon's marijuana legalization initiatives addressed prior convictions.

In Olympia, Thurston County public defender Alex Frix told state lawmakers he could succinctly make the case to wipe clean people's prior pot convictions.

"The voters spoke,” Frix said. “It is patently unfair to continue to punish people with the stain of a conviction for possessing a now-legal substance."

Currently, it's possible but cumbersome to have certain misdemeanor convictions expunged from your record provided you were crime-free since.

The Washington state bill to expunge misdemeanor marijuana convictions has sponsorship solely from Democratic representatives, which could spell trouble if and when it advances to the Republican-controlled state Senate. The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys opposed a previous legislative attempt to streamline the expungement of misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions.

"I don't think there is a person in this room that thinks the laws of the State of Washington are exactly what you'd like them to be. What's important is we commit to live by those laws until we change those laws," prosecutors association lobbyist Tom McBride said in a 2013 testimony. "At the time these crimes were convicted, it was a crime. It was known it was a crime."

State Representative Sherry Appleton, a Democrat, said prior convictions make it hard for some people to get a new job, housing or higher education.

"It is time that we set them free and let them go on about their lives," Appleton said after the latest bill on this marijuana angle was heard in the state House Public Safety Committee on Friday.

No one spoke in opposition at the Friday committee hearing.

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.