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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

No big changes from Gov. Inslee following Biden’s call for marijuana pardons

Gov. Jay Inslee speaks to students at Gonzaga University in Spokane on Feb. 18.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
By David Gutman Seattle Times

As he announced pardons on Thursday for everyone convicted of marijuana possession under federal law, President Joe Biden also called on governors across the country to issue similar pardons for state marijuana convictions.

But don’t expect any big changes in Washington where the governor, the state Legislature and the state Supreme Court have all taken significant steps in recent years to expunge past drug convictions.

“The president’s efforts are very much aligned with ours to correct some of our nation’s longstanding disparities in the justice system,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a prepared statement Thursday.

Marijuana possession of any amount remains illegal in Idaho, according to the Idaho Office of Drug Policy.

The state retains some of the most restrictive drug laws in the country.

The office of the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington said it was assessing how many people in the state might be affected by Biden’s order.

As a federal crime, simple marijuana possession is most often charged on federal land, like national parks and military bases.

U.S. Attorney for Western Washington Nick Brown, who was appointed by Biden last year, applauded the president’s move.

“I am encouraged that this will reduce the disparate impacts of a criminal conviction and shows a real improvement in our justice systems,” Brown said in a prepared statement.

Inslee, in 2019, announced he would give pardons to anyone convicted of misdemeanor marijuana possession between 1998 and 2012. Marijuana was made legal in Washington in 2012.

Inslee’s pardon offer was less generous than what Biden announced Thursday. Inslee’s order not only had date restrictions but also applied to only those with a sole marijuana conviction and an otherwise clear record.

It also required those eligible to apply for the pardons rather than granting them automatically. (Biden’s pardon applies automatically although the Department of Justice says that eligible people may need to apply for a “certificate of pardon” in order to prove the pardon applies to them.)

Mike Faulk, an Inslee spokesperson, said the governor has the authority under state law to issue clemency orders in response to requests, but he doesn’t have “clear authority” to grant blanket pardons to whole classes of individuals or convictions.

“Beyond what we’re already doing,” Faulk wrote, “I’m not sure what else is left to do with the Gov’s clemency authority.”

The governor’s office had estimated that roughly 3,500 people were eligible for the pardons, but, nearly four years later, only 38 have received pardons under the program, known as the Marijuana Justice Initiative.

But, shortly after Inslee offered marijuana pardons, the state Legislature followed suit, passing a law allowing people with marijuana convictions to apply to have them vacated.

Unlike Inslee’s pardon offer, the law, passed in 2019, doesn’t have a time limit and it allows people to vacate more than one marijuana possession conviction. It also applied to both state and municipal convictions. It requires a court to vacate misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions if a person asks and if they were 21 or older at the time of the offense.

In 2018, Seattle Municipal Court agreed to vacate misdemeanor marijuana possession prosecuted before pot was legalized in Washington. As many as 542 cases were affected, officials said at the time.

The biggest step in forgiving past drug convictions came from the state Supreme Court which, in 2021, ruled the state’s felony drug possession law to be unconstitutional because it did not require proof that someone knowingly possessed drugs.

The so-called Blake decision effectively, and temporarily, decriminalized drugs in Washington. The state Legislature acted quickly in re-criminalizing drugs although possession of many drugs was downgraded from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Prosecutors have been working to clear the records of people convicted of drug possession under the old, invalidated law. There are, by some estimates, up to 150,000 old convictions statewide to be vacated.

Meanwhile, Inslee has been commuting the sentences of people who were still on probation or other community supervision under the old law. His office said he has commuted more than 740 such sentences.

The Spokesman-Review contributed to this report.