The governor of Washington State on Monday, August 16, revealed a new process through which hundreds of people with low-level drug convictions can apply for a commutation of their sentence. In February, the state’s Supreme Court made the surprising decision to invalidate a statute criminalizing drug possession because it didn’t require the person to knowingly be in possession. Lawmakers then took up the issue, with some seeking to reinstate criminalization and others hoping to codify decriminalization. Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill in May that fell somewhere in the between, making it so those caught in possession of illicit substances would be referred to a health evaluation and possible treatment for their first two charges, allowing them to avoid arrest and a criminal record. Now, Gov. Inslee is aiming for expedited clemency for eligible individuals under the new policy.
Those on active community supervision for low-level drug possession convictions can directly petition Inslee for a commutation in light of the court’s earlier ruling. Inslee said in a press release, “I am committed to doing what I can to try to remedy the situation and assist the courts who are doing what they can to get through this backlog of cases.” He concludes, “I want to thank the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) and State Office of Public Defense (OPD) for stepping up to help me provide clemency relief to eligible petitioners.”
According to Filter, “The governor’s office said there are over 1,200 people with drug possession convictions who qualify for the relief. While state courts have taken some steps to provide the clemency on their own, Inslee said the coronavirus pandemic has caused a backlog, which is why the new gubernatorial process is needed.” The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly gotten in the way of many things over this past year and a half, but it’s also provided new pathways for a milieu of different cannabis businesses. As it pertains to legislation, however, COVID has definitely made things more difficult. In his press release, Inslee said, “COVID has created countless challenges in our criminal justice system. Though the State Supreme Court has invalidated the drug possession convictions of thousands of individuals, many of these individuals have not been able to get into court to have their convictions vacated and dismissed, even six months after the Supreme Court’s decision.”
The new plan as of right now, though, is to smooth out and streamline the process by “distributing commutation petitions to community correction officers to share with eligible people.” Once they complete their petitions, they’ll be processed and sent to the governor for his signature. The legislation that Inslee signed in May does contain a sunset provision, which expires on July 1, 2023. That would mean the state would revert to a system where drug possession would be fully decriminalized – and advocates hope legislators will take the time in-between to establish progressive policies that treat substance misuse as a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice matter. It appears the future is looking hopeful for Washington as the state legislature begins to promote marijuana reform.