Lester Black

A proposed law that would make it easy for over 68,000 people to clear their old misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions passed in the Washington Senate last night, making it one step closer to becoming law. Senate Bill 5605 passed with a 29-19 vote.

Sen. Joe Nguyen, a Democrat that represents parts of West Seattle and White Center, said he sponsored the legislation in an attempt to undo some of the harm of the criminal justice system’s war on drugs.

“If you look at our justice system, it’s obviously broken, and one of the biggest glaring examples of that is the unjust war on drugs that disproportionately impacted communities of color, especially the black community,” Nguyen said.

Washington legalized pot in 2012, meaning the crime these people were convicted of is no longer against state law. Yet these convictions still show up on people’s records, causing problems when it comes to employment, housing, and other aspects of life.

“We should make sure that we vacate as many convictions as possible for things that are now legal,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen working in Senate Chambers in February.
Nguyen working in Senate Chambers in February. Lester Black
Two Republicans supported the Senate Bill: Sen. Maureen Walsh from Walla Walla and Sen. Hans Zeiger from Puyallup. The proposed law now heads to the House of Representatives, where Nguyen said it has a good chance of passing.

“I think we should be in good shape. There’s no question they have the votes to pass this. It’s just a matter of making sure it’s a priority for the house as well,” Nguyen said.

The proposed law would require Washington’s courts to vacate all misdemeanor marijuana offenses as long as the person with the conviction applies for the vacation. The only requirement is that the person was 21 years of age or older at the time of the offense. A fiscal note attached to the Senate bill estimated that there were 43,506 people that met this criteria, but a representative from the Washington State Patrol told the Tacoma News Tribune that there are currently 58,864 people with 68,543 misdemeanor marijuana convictions.

Nguyen said he would have preferred that the bill just automatically vacate all of these misdemeanor charges so that the affected people would not be required to do anything, but he said state law would now allow that.

“You are not constitutionally allowed to just vacate marijuana convictions wholesale because there are seperations of power [between the legislature and the courts]. They will still have to apply for the court vacation, but it’s like $5. It’s still a step that I don’t want to do but I can’t get around it.”