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Washington Lawmakers Approve Drug Decriminalization Bill In Committee Vote

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A landmark drug decriminalization and treatment bill in Washington State cleared its first legislative hurdle on Monday, with a panel of lawmakers voting to advance the measure just hours before a key deadline.

The House Public Safety Committee voted 7–6 to approve the Pathways to Recovery Act, HB 1499, which would remove penalties for “personal use” amounts of illegal substances and expand outreach and recovery services. The vote is the first time a panel of lawmakers in any U.S. state has voted to remove criminal penalties for possession of all drugs.

“This bill is an assertion that substance use disorder is treatable brain disease from which people recover,” lead sponsor Rep. Lauren Davis (D) said before the vote. “This bill is about reaching each and every person living with substance use disorder, before they ever touch the criminal legal system.”

Voters in neighboring Oregon passed a similar measure last year, expanding treatment and replacing criminal penalties for small amounts of drugs with a $100 fine or referral to treatment. The Washington proposal, by contrast, does not include a fine.

Instead, the bill would drastically expand outreach and recovery services, part of what supporters have called a holistic “continuum of care” to support people with drug use disorders. While Washington has a relatively strong drug treatment system, they say, the state has long overlooked funding proactive outreach and long-term recovery.

“We fund one leg of a three-legged stool,” Davis said at an earlier committee hearing Friday at which lawmakers took testimony on the proposal. “We pay for treatment over and over, because insurance covers it, but we fail to fund the outreach on the front end and the recovery support services on the back end that are absolutely foundational to fostering sustained recovery.”

Watch lawmakers and advocates discuss the drug decriminalization bill below:

Lawmakers and advocates introduced the measure earlier this month, after scrambling to finalize the bill’s language and sponsors. Organizers at Treatment First Washington originally planned to put the proposal on last November’s ballot, but the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the signature-gathering effort, and last summer the group announced it would take the proposal to lawmakers instead.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 600 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

Despite attracting two-dozen House sponsors (including a lone Republican, Rep. Carolyn Eslick), HB 1499 almost didn’t come to a vote at all this session. Following Friday’s committee hearing, Chairman Rep. Roger Goodman (D) told Marijuana Moment the panel likely wouldn’t move the measure because it was introduced too late in the session. By Sunday, however, it was added to the committee’s schedule.

“This late submission has caused great inconvenience,” Goodman, who voted in favor of the bill, said at Monday’s hearing. “On behalf of the rest of the committee, I do apologize.”

Nor was the bill’s hearing on Monday particularly smooth. The panel initially approved an amendment that would have removed the decriminalization part of the bill, more or less gutting the overall thrust of the legislation. Within minutes, however, Democrats met in a caucus meeting and then moved to reconsider the vote, and Rep. Tina Orwall (D) switched to a “no” vote on the amendment, defeating it.

Ultimately the panel moved forward with an updated version of the bill, which includes a number of changes from the original. Among them, the substitute legislation delays the implementation of decriminalization for six months, from December 1, 2022 to July 1, 2023.

Regulators at the state Health Care Authority (HCA) would have until April 1, 2023 to adopt rules and define how much of each drug constitutes a “personal use amount.” A panel consisting of public defenders and prosecutors, along with people who currently use illegal drugs and others who are in recovery, would advise HCA on that decision.

The substitute bill also explicitly states that decriminalization wouldn’t prevent employers from establishing or enforcing rules against drug use. And it removes an earlier provision that would have allowed people with past drug convictions to have those records expunged without meeting current law requirements for vacating convictions. Individuals could still have their convictions expunged under the bill, but they would not be exempt from existing rules.

Watch the committee debate and vote on the drug decriminalization bill below:

Opponents have argued that by removing the threat of criminal sanctions, HB 1499 goes too far.

“The way the bill is currently written,” Rep. Gina Mosbrucker (R) said Monday, “if you walk up to a police officer and hold a bag of heroin or meth or fentanyl—even in front of their face—you can simply walk away. And that seems wrong on so many different levels.”

Others argued that removing penalties could actually hurt drug consumers, “I have seen incarceration save many, many lives,” said Rep. Brad Klippert (R), a military and law enforcement veteran.

Mosbrucker and Klippert both voted against the bill, along with Reps. Jenny Graham (R), Dan Griffey (R), John Lovick (D) and Jesse Young (R).

Rep. Tarra Simmons (D), who voted in favor of the change, said that in her experience as someone in recovery, criminalization only prevents people from getting help.

“As a person who now has 9 1/2 years in recovery from substance use disorder that included opiates, methamphetamine and marijuana,” she said, “I remember wanting to get help but being afraid because it was a crime.”

Despite hesitancy by some in law enforcement, others said the bill made sense. King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, for one, told lawmakers that prosecuting people for such small amounts of drugs is “simply not an effective strategy” to combat use or overdose deaths.

“This is a gram,” he said, holding up a single packet of Splenda to emphasize the relatively small amounts of hard drugs that would be allowed under the bill. “It’s not an ounce, it’s not a kilo. It’s a tiny, tiny amount consistent with the need to use drugs daily.”

A number of international drug experts also weighed in at last week’s hearing. Ruth Dreifuss, the former president of Switzerland and a member of the United Nations Global Commission on Drug Policy, began her comments by expressing “my deep recognition for the quality of the proposed House bill.”

“The free choice of those who control their consumption and don’t harm other should be respected,” Dreifuss said. “To those who are ill of addiction, access to treatment should be guaranteed.”

Also speaking in favor of the bill was João Augusto Castel-Branco Goulão, the national drug coordinator for Portugal, the first country to decriminalize all drugs.

In response to questions from skeptical lawmakers about how decriminalization had gone in that country, he argued the country has seen “a clear improvement in all of the indicators available.” Overdose deaths have declined, youth drug use has decreased and the estimated number of people with drug use disorders has fallen, he said.

The next step for the bill is the House Appropriations Committee and then, potentially, a full floor vote.

Some other state legislatures are also considering similar reforms. A Kansas lawmaker late last week introduced a measure to replace criminal penalties for simple drug possession with a $100 fine. People caught with drugs other than marijuana would be referred to mandatory treatment, and failure to comply would be a misdemeanor.

In New York, a Senate bill introduced last month would decriminalize low-level possession of any controlled substance and instead levy fines of $50.

Activists across the country have also been pursuing a more targeted decriminalization model to deprioritize enforcement of laws against naturally produced psychedelics, such as psilocybin and ibogaine.

A Republican lawmaker in Iowa introduced a bill last week to remove psilocybin from the list of controlled substances.

In California, a lawmaker said late last year that he planned to file a bill that would decriminalize psychedelics. And activists are hoping to see further legislation to broadly remove criminal penalties for simple drug possession.

Legislators in Connecticut, FloridaHawaii, Texas and Virginia are also considering psychedelics and drug policy reform bills for the 2021 session.

In Washington, meanwhile, Goodman, the chair of the committee that cleared the decriminalization bill on Monday, told Marijuana Moment that the state will “keep pushing hard and riding this wave.”

“Washington State will lead the way as we wind down the drug war,” he said.

New Mexico Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill In Committee

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor. He has covered cannabis as a journalist since 2011, most recently as a senior news editor for Leafly.

Politics

Marijuana Use Won’t Automatically Block People From Federal Jobs, Biden Administration Memo Says

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Admitting to past marijuana use should not automatically disqualify people from being employed in the federal government, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) said in a memo distributed to agencies on Thursday. Separately, the Biden administration is instituting a new policy of granting waivers to some White House staff who’ve used cannabis.

While the extent and recency of an applicant’s use can still be factors in making employment decisions, OPM said that simply admitting to prior cannabis consumption doesn’t necessarily mean a person lacks the “suitability or fitness for a position,” as long as they commit to not use marijuana while employed.

“It would be inconsistent with suitability regulations to implement a policy of finding an individual unfit or unsuitable for federal service solely on the basis of recency of marijuana use,” Acting OPM Director Kathleen M. McGettigan wrote. “Past marijuana use, including recently discontinued marijuana use, should be viewed differently from ongoing marijuana use.”

This government-wide development comes as NBC News is separately reporting that President Joe Biden’s administration will be granting waivers for certain officials in the White House’s Executive Office of the President who have used cannabis. Again, the extent of the person’s past use can influence whether they obtain a waiver, and they must pledge to stop consuming marijuana.

“As more state laws have changed, federal agencies are increasingly encountering individuals whose knowledge, skills, and abilities make them well-qualified for a position, but whose marijuana use may or may not be of concern when considering the suitability or fitness of the individual for the position,” says the new OPM memo, which applies to most federal workers except for those dealing with classified information or who are employed in a sensitive national security position.

There are statutory considerations that agencies must still take into account, including two factors that “could be implicated by an individual’s use or possession of marijuana.” Illegal use of controlled substances without “evidence of substantial rehabilitation” is one, OMP said, and the other is “criminal or dishonest conduct.”

“However, OPM’s suitability regulations do not permit agencies to automatically find individuals unsuitable for federal employment based on either factor,” it continues. “Rather, when agencies consider the suitability or fitness of an applicant or appointee for a position, the individual’s conduct must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine the impact, if any, to the integrity and the efficiency of the Government.”

“Even where an individual has illegally used marijuana without evidence of substantial rehabilitation, agencies cannot find an individual unsuitable unless there is a nexus between the conduct and the ‘integrity or…efficiency of the service,'” the memo says.

This is a notable development that recognizes the reality that more states continue to legalize cannabis for medical and recreational purposes, and people who have used marijuana shouldn’t be discriminated against, even if it remains illegal under federal law.

Biden might continue to be opposed to adult-use legalization, but he does support other reforms like legalizing for medical use, decriminalizing possession, expunging prior records, modestly rescheduling the plant and letting states set their own policies. And regardless of where he stands, the fact remains that many Americans have used cannabis, meaning the administration would likely face hiring challenges if they imposed a blanket ban.

With respect to the White House policy that NBC reported, an official said that the guidelines “effectively protect our national security while modernizing policies to ensure that talented and otherwise well-qualified applicants with limited marijuana use will not be barred from serving the American people.”

There is one somewhat odd stipulation for White House workers who say they’ve used marijuana and receive a waiver. Depending on how recent that use was, they may be asked to work remotely for some amount of time, for unspecified reasons. They must also be subject to random drug testing.

Read the OPM memo on marijuana use and job eligibility below: 

Memo Assessing Suitability … by Marijuana Moment

IRS Chief Says Agency Would ‘Prefer’ If Marijuana Businesses Could Pay Taxes Electronically

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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Washington Supreme Court Strikes Down Criminalization Of Drug Possession

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Washington State’s felony penalties against drug possession abruptly disappeared on Thursday after the state Supreme Court struck down the law as unconstitutional. As lawmakers decide how to respond to the decision—with a bill to decriminalize all drugs having already passed a legislative committee earlier this month—some police departments and prosecutors have now announced they’ll no longer arrest or pursue cases against people over possession of small amounts.

Simple drug possession “is no longer an arrestable offense,” the Seattle Police Department said in a public statement following the ruling. “Effective immediately, officers will no longer detain nor arrest individuals” merely for having drugs.

The ruling in the case, State v. Blake, applies only to possession of controlled substances. Other state drug laws, such as those against selling or driving under the influence of drugs, are unaffected.

Meanwhile, according to The Associated Press, the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys sent a memo directing its members to drop ongoing drug possession cases and seek orders vacating convictions for past cases.

“While the legislature can change this prospectively (such action is doubtful), police officers must immediately stop making arrests for simple possession of drugs,” an official with the prosecutors group wrote in an email to Seattle police. “No search warrants. No detentions upon suspicion of simple possession awaiting canine units, etc.”

“You will need to advise your officers as to whether officers should still seize the unlawful drugs as contraband or leave them in possession of the individual,” the email continued.

Pacific County Prosecutor Ben Haslam told The Chinook Observer that the ruling “has come as a shock to our office.”

“On the prosecutor’s office’s end, we are preparing to request the immediate release of individuals being held in custody only for simple-possession cases,” he said. “Next, we will have to quash all active warrants on pending possession cases. Moving forward, I expect we will be required to vacate charges for individuals previously convicted of possession, and I’m sure there will be many other ramifications as well.”

How long Washington’s de facto legalization of drug possession will last is an open question. The court struck down the state’s possession law over a single issue: the statute failed to require proof a defendant knowingly possessed the drugs, allowing people to be convicted without any intention of committing a crime.

In response, lawmakers could simply replace the old law with a new one that includes such a requirement. Or they could not.

The idea of reducing or removing criminal penalties for simple drug possession is growing in popularity, with Oregon voters recently replacing penalties for possession of any drug with a $100 civil fine or referral to a health assessment. A bill introduced in Washington’s legislature earlier this year would make similar changes, removing all penalties for possession of personal-use amounts of drugs and significantly expanding state funding for outreach, treatment and recovery services.

The measure, HB 1499, passed a House panel earlier this month.

“Today’s Supreme Court decision gives renewed urgency to the conversation about our state’s response to untreated substance use disorder,” the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Lauren Davis (D), told Marijuana Moment late Thursday. “It presents an opportunity to continue the discussion that was begun in the legislature this session with HB 1499.”

The court decision accomplishes only part of Davis’s proposal. While one prong of her plan would decriminalize drugs, the other would create a “continuum of care” to ensure access to drug treatment and recovery services—something Thursday’s ruling does not do.

“It is imperative that we stop handing down felony possession convictions that compound shame and create barriers to recovery. We must stop criminalizing symptoms of a treatable brain disease. Today’s decision does that,” Davis said. “But that alone is insufficient. It is equally important that we build out a response to substance use disorder that truly works—a robust and fully funded continuum of care ranging from outreach to treatment to recovery support services.”

King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg said lawmakers should act to address the court’s action.

“While there will be a significant amount of work necessary to comply with this ruling in the courthouses throughout the state, it is equally important that the Legislature take steps now to amend this statute to correct the defect found by the Supreme Court,” he said in a statement. “The Legislature should act with a sense of urgency to add the necessary elements to make this statute constitutional this session, and not leave a defective statute on the books.”

Justices on the court weren’t necessarily setting out to legalize drugs when they undertook the case that led to Thursday’s decision. Rather than taking aim at the broader drug war, the ruling says that Washington’s possession law unconstitutionally allowed innocent people to be charged and convicted by failing to require that a defendant knew that drugs were in their possession.

“The possession statute at issue here does far more than regulate drugs,” the court wrote in a majority opinion by Justice Sheryl Gordon McLoud and signed by five of the court’s nine members. “It is unique in the nation in criminalizing entirely innocent, unknowing possession.”

The statute would criminalize a postal carrier who delivers a package containing unprescribed Adderall, the opinion says, as well as a roommate unaware the person they live with has hidden drugs in the common areas of the home.

“A person might pick up the wrong bag at the airport, the wrong jacket at the concert, or even the wrong briefcase at the courthouse,” it continues. “Or a child might carry an adult’s backpack, not knowing that it contains the adult’s illegal drugs.”

The defendant in the case, Shannon Blake, was charged with felony drug possession after police in 2016 found a small bag of methamphetamine in the coin pocket of her jeans. Blake, however, said she didn’t use drugs and was given the secondhand jeans as a gift just two days earlier.

Because Washington’s drug law didn’t require that defendants knowingly had drugs on their person, Blake was charged and convicted.

In rendering its decision Thursday, the Supreme Court vacated Blake’s conviction.

The court’s prior interpretations of the law make the statute “criminalize innocent and passive possession, even by a defendant who does not know, and has no reason to know, that drugs lay hidden within something that they possess. The legislature’s police power goes far, but not that far,” the justices determined. “Accordingly, RCW 69.50.4013(1)—the portion of the simple drug possession statute creating this crime—violates the due process clauses of the state and federal constitutions and is void.”

Not all justices agreed the decision needed to be so sweeping. Justice Debra L. Stephens said in a separate opinion, which concurred in part and dissented in part with the majority, that the court could break from its past holdings and simply reinterpret the law to require proof that defendants knowingly broke the law. She agreed Blake’s conviction should be thrown out but argued the possession law need not be scrapped in its entirety.

“I would overrule our erroneous precedent and, considering the main arguments actually briefed in this case, read an implied intent element into the drug possession statute,” Stephens wrote. “Nearly every other state to have interpreted the model statute holds that it does [have such an element], and Blake urges us to embrace this interpretation.”

Three other justices signed a dissenting opinion, arguing that the court has interpreted Washington’s drug possession law for more than 60 years as not requiring an element of intent—and moreover, that the court’s past decisions have respected the authority of lawmakers to “criminalize conduct regardless of whether the actor intended wrongdoing.”

It’s not entirely clear how many past cases might be affected by Thursday’s ruling. Mark Middaugh, a lawyer who filed a friend-of-brief in the case on behalf of the Washington Association of Criminal Defense lawyers, told the Seattle Times that he believes the ruling could be applied retroactively, allowing anyone with a past conviction for simple drug possession to have that record thrown out.

A press release from the Washington Appellate Project, which represented Blake in the case, was comparatively understated. “Washington joins 49 other states and the federal government,” it said, “in recognizing that the unknowing possession of drugs is not a crime.”

Richard Lechich, a Washington Appellate Project staff attorney who argued the case before the Supreme Court, said justices “correctly recognized the injustice of convicting people for innocent conduct.”

“While the decision cannot rectify the harm this law caused to so many communities, particularly communities of color, it at least puts an end to it,” he said.

Lechich, however, warned Washingtonians to not to take advantage of the situation. While the possession law is off the books, he said, and some in law enforcement seem to be halting arrests and prosecutions, it’s still a risk to openly acknowledge having drugs.

“I would be very careful about that,” Lechich told Marijuana Moment. “Certainly if you were my client, I wouldn’t advise you to do that.”

Washington Lawmakers Approve Drug Decriminalization Bill In Committee Vote

Photo courtesy of Markus Spiske

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Disagreements Threaten Virginia Marijuana Legalization Deal As Deadline Approaches

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Conference committee members are divided over a proposed delay in regulatory decisions until next session, but have reportedly settled on delaying legalization of cannabis possession in any case.

By Ned Oliver, Virginia Mercury

With a Saturday deadline approaching, state lawmakers in the House and Senate are still working to resolve differences over landmark legislation that would legalize recreational marijuana in Virginia.

As of Thursday evening, it was unclear whether the two chambers would be able to reach an agreement on the bill, which Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has made a priority in his final year in office.

At least one lawmaker privately doubted the legislation would pass. Others, however, remained optimistic even as they acknowledged negotiations had grown tense, suggesting a vote was possible as early as Friday.

According to five sources familiar with the talks, the primary point of contention is language sought by the Senate that would delay decisions about how the new market is regulated until next year. Members of the chamber said during hearings last month they felt the legislation was too expansive and complex to complete work on during the 45-day session.

Lawmakers in the House have resisted, arguing the delay is unnecessary, citing in-depth studies conducted by legislative analysts and Northam’s administration. House lawmakers have also expressed discomfort about voting to legalize the drug without finalizing plans for a legal marketplace, according to the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations.

If a bill does emerge from the conference negotiations, it’s likely to disappoint civil rights advocates who have been pushing for an immediate end to criminal penalties related to the drug.

Both the House and Senate passed legalization bills that wouldn’t allow sales of recreational marijuana to begin until January 1, 2024—time both sides agree they need to set up a new cannabis authority to regulate the industry.

But they have differed over whether criminal penalties related to the drug should stay in place until legal sales begin. The House advanced legislation that wouldn’t end prohibition until 2024 while the Senate proposed legalizing possession of an ounce or less of marijuana beginning July 1 of this year.

The House, whose members worried that repealing criminal penalties before legal sales are permitted would encourage the black market, appear to have won the debate, with Senate negotiators agreeing to maintain existing criminal penalties until 2024, according to the sources.

The approach stands in contrast to a legalization bill signed by New Jersey’s governor on Monday, which immediately ended criminal penalties for possession of up to six ounces even though retail sales aren’t expected to begin until 2022 at the earliest.

Advocates had called the Senate’s position the minimum the legislature could do to address criminal penalties before the retail marketplace opens. Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who proposed it, said it didn’t make sense to continue prosecuting people for something lawmakers had voted to legalize.

“We can’t risk more people being caught in the system for acting in ways that will soon be legal,” wrote a coalition of 25 advocacy organizations led by the ACLU of Virginia and the reform group Marijuana Justice.

Lawmakers skeptical of repealing criminal penalties before there are legal avenues to buy the drug have said they view the decriminalization legislation they passed last year, which reduced penalties for simple possession to a $25 civil fine, an adequate interim step.

Chelsea Higgs Wise, director of Marijuana Justice, countered that the approach unnecessarily allows the disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws against Black Virginians to continue for three years. She said court data obtained by advocates shows that even with reduced fines, Black people are four times more likely than White people to face citations despite using the drug at the same rate.

“The commonwealth’s ‘decriminalization’ enforcement maintains Virginia’s racial disparities and goes against Governor Northam’s stated commitment to social equity, racial equity, and economic equity for marijuana legislation,” she wrote in a statement.

The two chambers are continuing to debate another focus for advocacy groups: how to treat people under 21 caught with the drug. As drafted, the Senate’s version would dramatically increase penalties for underage users caught with the drug, increasing the civil penalty for possession from $25 to $250 for people ages 18 to 20. Minors would face a $200 civil penalty for a first offense.

Valerie Slater, the director of RISE for Youth, which advocates for reforming the state’s juvenile justice system, said she favors the House’s approach, which would also increase penalties for underage possession, but only on subsequent offenses.

But she pointed to New Jersey’s new law as a better alternative, which calls for a written warning for a first offense, a call to parents for a second offense and referral to community services for a third offense. Members of the state’s Black Legislative Caucus opposed fines, worrying “police would continue to stop and fine minority youth more frequently than White people under 21,” according to The Star-Ledger.

“At no point should this be a crime for kids,” she said. “Can we just take New Jersey’s language and drop it into ours? It would be ideal.”

This story was first published by the Virginia Mercury.

Kansas Governor’s Medical Marijuana Bill Introduced As Lawmakers Take Up Separate Legalization Proposal

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