Washington State Looks at Clearing Cannabis Criminal Records

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Activists for cannabis reform have been saying the same thing for years: cannabis reform will not be truly fair and effective unless it includes expungement, record sealing, and other considerations for those previously convicted of nonviolent cannabis offenses.

There are many reasons why a proactive stance on those paying the criminal price for cannabis use, cultivation, and distribution is necessary for true cannabis reform. First, and perhaps most importantly, there is the fact that people of color have disproportionately borne the burden of prohibition. Depending on where they are located, individuals with any color of skin other than white are often several times more likely to wind up arrested and convicted for minor cannabis offenses than their Caucasian counterparts.

Secondly, there is the fact that our overloaded prison system could certainly use the extra space that would become available if all individuals with only nonviolent cannabis offenses received a pardon. Why should Americans continue to pay for cannabis incarceration when the law in their state changes?

Finally, those with a previous arrest who have already served their sentence or avoided jail time shouldn’t have to live with a criminal record for something that is no longer a crime.

Unfortunately, legalization has not been without its hiccups. Many states have issues with supply or adequate access in rural areas. Other states find a shortage of retail facilities because local communities choose to ban dispensaries before one can even open.

However, the failure of programs intended to promote social justice alongside cannabis legalization is one of the most conspicuous and upsetting issues caused by legalization. Washington State perfectly exemplifies this issue.

Despite a promise from the Governor, Jay Inslee, to work with those with cannabis convictions on their record, so far only 13 people have actually successfully completed that process. Now, thankfully, Washington state lawmakers are re-evaluating the program as it stands and looking to expand it to include thousands more residents of Washington.

There could be roughly 3,500 people who qualify for pardons in Washington under the plan put in place by the Governor. Lawmakers, including state Representative Joe Fitzgibbon, want to pass a law, HB 1500, that will make it easier for hundreds of thousands of people with cannabis convictions to seek and secure expungement of their records.

It will be interesting to see how Washington approaches the issue and how successful they are at improving participation in and the reach of expungement programs. Other states that are moving toward legalization should carefully consider the way that they frame social justice initiatives to ensure better participation and better coverage.

For previousLadybud coverage of Washington, click here.