Legislators in Olympia might make the law less punitive for budtenders.
Legislators in Olympia might make the law less punitive for budtenders. Lester Black

Standing behind a counter and selling pre-rolled joints and vape cartridges might not seem like a dangerous profession, but being a budtender in Washington carries some serious risks. If a budtender gets caught selling pot to someone under 21 they can face a felony that can carry a fine of $20,000 and can put them in jail for ten years.

The same isn’t true for someone who sells alcohol to a minor. Selling booze to a minor is a gross misdemeanor, a significantly less serious crime that carries a maximum jail time of 364 days and a fine of not more than $5,000.

That disparity doesn’t make a lot of sense when you consider that pot is a less dangerous drug than alcohol. But a proposed bill that would change that by lowering the penalties for budtenders who accidentally sell to minors. The proposed law is moving through the state capitol in Olympia and appears to be on a promising path to becoming law.

The law, House Bill 1792, passed the House of Representatives last month in an 89 to 8 vote and on Tuesday it passed the Senate Law & Justice Committee. It’s now waiting to be scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor.

The law was sponsored by Rep. Sherry Appleton, a Democrat from Bainbridge, and Rep. Eric Pettigrew, a Democrat from Seattle. Pettigrew did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story, which is weird because this bill is evidence of Pettigrew getting some common sense legislation passed. Maybe it's because the Stranger's Election Control Board called him a "seat warmer" and a "useless fuckwit" last year. Oh well.

Vicki Christophersen, a lobbyist and the executive director of the Washington CannaBusiness Association, said there are instances of budtenders being charged with felonies but there is no statewide data on how often that happens.

“We haven’t been able to aggregate data across the state but we know that it is happening. And we just fundamentally agree that even if it just happens once it’s not the right thing to happen to a budtender,” Christophersen said. “Felony convictions change people’s lives forever, they restrict their ability to do a lot of the things that we all enjoy.”

Ian Eisenberg, the owner of the Uncle Ike’s chain of pot shops, testified in support of the bill when it was in the House and said the current penalties are unfair.

“It’s not fair if a budtender sells to a minor that they get saddled with a felony and I don’t get charged at all. At least a misdemeanor is a little better and a deterrent,” Eisenberg said in a text to me. Eisenberg said he would prefer the penalties were even closer to the system for bartending. Bartenders face a rising scale of penalties for serving minors with their permit to serve alcohol removed after a fourth violation.

Christophersen said the law still allows authorities to charge people with felonies when they intentionally sell or distribute cannabis to a minor.

“If you really are intentionally selling to minors then you could still be subject to a felony. But for negligence, which is defined by things that you think of like misreading a fake ID, that would be subject to a gross misdemeanor,” Christophersen said.

The bill has until April 17 to be voted on by the Senate.