Gov. Jay inslee announced Friday that he will pardon thousands of people statewide who were previously convicted of low-level marijuana charges, an action that appears to be the first of its kind in the country.
"We have people who have this burden on their shoulders from a simple, one-time marijuana possession from maybe 20 years ago," Inslee told The Associated Press in an interview, "and that's impeding the ability of people to live their lives."
Inslee’s announcement comes more than six years since Washington voters approved Initiative 502, legalizing the use and regulating the sale of marijuana.
The governor announced the plan at a summit for the cannabis industry in SeaTac. He underscored how the small-time possession convictions can damage people’s ability to finance a home, get financial aid for college or attend a class field trip with their children.
"We should not be punishing people for something that is no longer illegal," he said.
Today I'm at the Cannabis Alliance annual conference to announce my Marijuana Justice Initiative which will provide pardons for certain individuals who have convictions on their record for misdemeanor marijuana possession. https://t.co/EQZhgFsORC
— Governor Jay Inslee (@GovInslee) January 4, 2019
Inslee’s decision to expunge marijuana convictions isn’t unique. Some cities, counties and states have simplified the process of clearing convictions. Seattle, among other cities across the country, are conducting sweeping pardons of old marijuana convictions.
Still, Inslee’s plan appears to be the first to create a streamlined process for pardoning misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions statewide. Eligible people — those who have been convicted as an adult, only once — will be able to use a simple form on the governor's website to ask for a pardon of a single conviction dating as far back as 1998.
Inslee cited racial justice as one motivation for launching the program, which he called the Marijuana Justice Initiative.
That is a step in the right direction, says Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. She told the AP that clearing past convictions such as these is a racial-justice issue. Historically, minorities are arrested for marijuana possession at disproportionate rates, she said.
"The governor is sending a strong message here about the ameliorative steps that must be taken to address those injustices," Clarke said. "I hope there are other states that will follow the governor's lead here."
While advocates for reform of marijuana laws welcomed Inslee’s plan, they also stressed that more could be done. Specifically, they point to those with more than one conviction, who still will be subject to traditional clemency requirements.
Inslee, a Democrat who is considering a presidential run in 2020, suggested this may be a first step. "Maybe there will be another step later on," he said.