[dropcap class=”kp-dropcap”]T[/dropcap]he “War on Drugs” did irreparable damage to the lives of many cannabis consumers and has disproportionately affected people of color. Ending cannabis prohibition in Washington State, unfortunately, did not undo any of this past damage.
Washington State Patrol Captain Monica Alexander confirmed that the number of misdemeanor cannabis convictions is 68,543, with 58,864 individuals affected, as some individuals had multiple convictions.
Two companion bills were presented to the House and Senate in early 2019, House Bill 1500 and Senate Bill 5605. While HB-1500 did not move out of the House, SB-5605 did make it out of the Senate on March 11 with a vote of 29-19. This is a positive first step toward reversing some of the damage from the racist “War on Drugs.
“We need to make right the disproportionate harms that the war on marijuana inflicted for many years on people of color, and this bill helps remedy those harms,” Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon told CULTURE. “Washingtonians with a misdemeanor marijuana possession conviction deserve the opportunity to clean the slate and open up access to housing, jobs and education, of which a misdemeanor conviction can deprive them. I’m encouraged to see the Senate take this long-overdue step thanks to Sen. Nguyen’s leadership and will be working to ensure that the House follows suit this session.”
“The main thing for me is equity and justice. And an acknowledgment that we have a judicial system that historically criminalizes black and brown bodies. An egregious example of that is how folks are treated regarding marijuana convictions, so I wanted to make sure we vacated those.”
SB-5605 is sponsored by Sen. Joe Nguyen, Rep. Fitzgibbon’s seatmate. CULTURE spoke with Sen. Nguyen about the bill, and why he chose to sponsor the legislation. “The main thing for me is equity and justice,” Nguyen stated. “And an acknowledgment that we have a judicial system that historically criminalizes black and brown bodies. An egregious example of that is how folks are treated regarding marijuana convictions, so I wanted to make sure we vacated those.”
A look at data regarding cannabis consumption versus arrests by ethnic groups supports Nguyen’s assertion that black and brown people are unfairly targeted and arrested for cannabis charges. According to a report titled “Marijuana Legalization in Washington State: Monitoring the Impact on Racial Disparities in Criminal Justice” by University of Washington’s Caislin Firth, “in 2010, African Americans/Blacks were 3.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites in the U.S., yet use of marijuana remains similar across racial and ethnic groups.”
So, what’s next concerning misdemeanor cannabis offense convictions? Sen. Nguyen told CULTURE that the next step for the bill is flipping it back to the House, where it will just need to be heard. Nguyen was confident about the bill’s chances of making it to the house and proud that the bill had gained bipartisan support. If it’s heard in the house, it will make it to Gov. Inslee’s desk, where there’s a good chance the bill will be passed into law.
Typically, when bad laws wreak havoc on people’s lives, there is no recourse. Sen. Nguyen and his colleagues are looking to change that by undoing some of the damage caused by the “War on Drugs.” The outcome of this legislation will have huge consequences for the U.S. justice system, and the cannabis industry at-large.