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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.

The Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs also sent guidance to its members that says “law enforcement officers are no longer authorized to conduct a criminal investigation, effect an arrest, seek a search warrant or take any other law enforcement action for simple possession of controlled substances” under the law struck down by the court.

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.”

Christina Blocker, communications director for the advocacy group Treatment First WA, which is working to build support for the decriminalization bill, said the ruling provides “more evidence that clearly what we are doing isn’t working and it’s time for us to change our current drug policies.”

“We need policies that treat substance use disorders as what they are—a public health issue,” she said.

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.”

Theshia Naidoo, managing director for the Drug Policy Alliance’s Department of Legal Affairs, said that the court ruling is a “perfect dovetail to the drug decriminalization bill moving through the legislature.”

“We urge legislators to immediately consider this bill and the benefits it would bring, including expanded health, harm reduction and recovery services, rather than re-enacting the harmful criminal penalties of the past that have resulted in extreme racial disparities, record drug overdoses and countless lives ruined,” she said.

Washington Lawmakers Approve Drug Decriminalization Bill In Committee Vote

Photo courtesy of Markus Spiske

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

Top IRS Official Says Marijuana Banking Reform Would Help Feds ‘Get Paid’

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The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) would like to get paid—and it’d help if the marijuana industry had access to banks like companies in other legal markets, an official with the federal department said. She also talked about unique issues related to federal tax deductions for cannabis businesses.

At an event hosted by UCLA’s Annual Tax Controversy Institute on Thursday, IRS’s Cassidy Collins talked about the “special type of collection challenge” that the agency faces when it comes to working with cannabis businesses while the product remains federally illegal.

While IRS isn’t taking a stand on federal marijuana policy, Collins said that the status quo leaves many cannabis businesses operating on a cash-only basis, creating complications for the agency, in part by making it harder for banks to “pay us.”

“The reason why [the marijuana industry is] cash intensive is twofold,” she said. “Number one, a lot of customers don’t want a paper trail showing that they’re buying marijuana, and number two, the hesitancy of banks to allow marijuana businesses to even bank with them.”

Of course, the reason why many financial institutions remain hesitant to take on cannabis companies as clients is because the plant is a strictly controlled substance under federal law.

“There’s been a number of legislative bills that have been introduced—and I am definitely not expressing any opinion personally or on behalf of the IRS about any pending or proposed legislation,” Collins, who is a senior counsel in the IRS Office of Chief Counsel, said. “But it is interesting to note that, if the law changed so that the marijuana businesses could have banks, that would make the IRS’s job to collect [taxes] a lot easier. As part of collection, we want the money. That’s our end goal there.”

A major part of what makes cannabis businesses unique is that they don’t qualify for traditional tax credits under an IRS code known as 280E. That policy “prohibits them from claiming deductions for business expenses because they’re technically being involved in drug trafficking,” Collins explained at the event, from which small excerpts of her comments were reported by Bloomberg.

There are some options available to lessen the burden on marijuana firms, however. At the end of the day, “IRS will work with marijuana companies because, again, we want to get paid,” Collins said.

One of the ways the agency works with marijuana business operators is to have them visit designated IRS “tax assistance centers” that accept cash payments in excess of $50,000. But the official warned businesses to “be prepared to be there for a little while” as the center checks—and double checks—the amount of cash being submitted.

“Revenue officers will assist the marijuana companies in paying us,” she said.

IRS officials could also help cannabis firms by having officials accompany them “to the bank in order to try to help the taxpayer secure a cashier’s payment to pay the IRS, as well as using money orders,” she said, adding that “our revenue officers are are wanting to work with the marijuana companies to help assist them to pay us.”

“When the revenue officers are there in person with the taxpayer, that could potentially help increase the likelihood that the bank will cooperate and help the taxpayer transition into a cashier’s check,” she continued. “And that has been a trend since this first became legal [at the state level], that more and more banks are allowing cannabis companies to bank with them.”

In a report published earlier this year, congressional researchers examined tax policies and restrictions for the marijuana industry—and how those could change if any number of federal reform bills are enacted.

IRS, for its part, said last month that it expects the cannabis market to continue to grow, and it offered some tips to businesses on staying compliant with taxes while the plant remains federally prohibited.

As it stands, banks and credit unions are operating under 2014 guidance from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) that lays out reporting requirements for those that choose to service the marijuana industry.

Leaders in both chambers of Congress are working on legalization bills to end federal marijuana prohibition. But stakeholders are hopeful that, in the interim, legislators will enact modest marijuana banking reform. Legislation to protect financial institutions from being penalized for working with cannabis businesses passed the House for the fifth time last month.

Rodney Hood, a board member of the National Credit Union Administration, wrote in a Marijuana Moment op-ed this month that legalization is an inevitability—and it makes the most sense for government agencies to get ahead of the policy change to resolve banking complications.

IRS separately hosted a forum in August dedicated to tax policy for marijuana businesses and cryptocurrency.

Earlier this year, IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig told Congress that the agency would “prefer” for state-legal marijuana businesses to be able to pay taxes electronically, as the current largely cash-based system under federal cannabis prohibition is onerous and presents risks to workers.

Former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in 2019 that he’d like to see Congress approve legislation resolving the cannabis banking issue and he pointed to the fact that IRS has had to build “cash rooms” to deposit taxes from those businesses as an example of the problem.

IRS released updated guidance on tax policy for the marijuana industry last year, including instructions on how cannabis businesses that don’t have access to bank accounts can pay their tax bills using large amounts of cash.

The update appears to be responsive to a Treasury Department internal watchdog report that was released earlier in the year. The department’s inspector general for tax administration had criticized IRS for failing to adequately advise taxpayers in the marijuana industry about compliance with federal tax laws. And it directed the agency to “develop and publicize guidance specific to the marijuana industry.”

Luxembourg Set To Become First European Country To Legalize Marijuana Following Government Recommendation

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Luxembourg Set To Become First European Country To Legalize Marijuana Following Government Recommendation

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Luxembourg is poised to become the first European country to legalize marijuana, with key government agencies putting forward a plan to allow the possession and cultivation of cannabis for personal use.

The ministers of justice and homeland security on Friday unveiled the proposal, which will still require a vote in the Parliament but is expected to pass. It’s part of a broader package of reform measures the agencies are recommending.

Under the marijuana measure, adults 18 and older could grow up to four plants. However, under the non-commercial model that is being proposed, possessing more than three grams in public would still be a civil offense, carrying a fine of €25-500 ($29-581). Currently, the maximum fine for possession is €2,500 ($2,908).

In terms of access, adults would be able to buy and trade cannabis seeds for their home garden.

Justice Minister Sam Tamson said the government felt it “had to act” and characterized the home cultivation policy change as a first step, The Guardian reported.

“The idea is that a consumer is not in an illegal situation if he consumes cannabis and that we don’t support the whole illegal chain from production to transportation to selling where there is a lot of misery attached,” he said. “We want to do everything we can to get more and more away from the illegal black market.”

While limited in scope, the reform would make Luxembourg the first country in Europe to legalize the production and possession of marijuana for recreational use. Cannabis has been widely decriminalized in certain countries in the continent, but it has remained criminalized by statute.

Government sources in Luxembourg told The Guardian that plans are in the works to develop a program where the state regulates the production and distribution of marijuana. Tamson said they are working to resolve “international constraints” before taking that step, however, referring to United Nations treaty obligations that multiple U.S. states and other countries like Canada and Uruguay have openly flouted.

For now, the country is focusing on legalization within a home setting. Parliament is expected to vote on the proposal in early 2022, and the ruling parties are friendly to the reform.

This has been a long time coming, as a coalition of major parties of Luxembourg agreed in 2018 to enact legislation allowing “the exemption from punishment or even legalization” of cannabis.

Meanwhile in the U.S., congressional lawmakers are working to advance legalization legislation. A key House committee recently approved a bill to end marijuana prohibition, and Senate leadership is finalizing a separate reform proposal.

In Mexico, a top Senator said this week that lawmakers could advance legislation to regulate marijuana in the coming weeks. The Supreme Court has already ruled that adults cannot be criminalized over possession or cultivation, but there’s currently no program in place to provide access.

New Bipartisan Marijuana Research Bill In Congress Would Let Scientists Study Dispensary Products

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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New Bipartisan Marijuana Research Bill In Congress Would Let Scientists Study Dispensary Products

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A bipartisan group of federal lawmakers introduced a bill on Thursday to remove barriers to conducting research on marijuana, including by allowing scientists to access cannabis from state-legal dispensaries.

The Medical Marijuana Research Act, filed by the unlikely duo of pro-legalization Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and prohibitionist Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), would streamline the process for researchers to apply and get approved to study cannabis and set clear deadlines on federal agencies to act on their applications.

“Congress is hopelessly behind the American people on cannabis, and the quality of our research shows why that is an urgent problem,” Blumenauer told Marijuana Moment. “Despite the fact that 99 percent of Americans live in a state that has legalized some form of cannabis, federal law is still hamstringing researchers’ ability to study the full range of health benefits offered by cannabis, and to learn more about the products readily available to consumers.”

“It’s outrageous that we are outsourcing leadership in that research to Israel, the United Kingdom, Canada, and others. It’s time to change the system,” he said.

Late last year, the House approved an identical version of the cannabis science legislation. Days later, the Senate passed a similar bill but nothing ended up getting to the president’s desk by the end of the last Congress. Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of senators refiled their marijuana research measure for the current 117th Congress.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are also advancing a separate strategy to open up dispensary cannabis to researchers. Large-scale infrastructure legislation that has passed both chambers in differing forms and which is pending final action contains provisions aimed at allowing researchers to study the actual marijuana that consumers are purchasing from state-legal businesses instead of having to use only government-grown cannabis.

The new bill filed this week by Blumenauer and Harris, along with six other original cosponsors, would also make it easier for scientists to modify their research protocols without having to seek federal approval.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 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.

It would additionally mandate that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) license more growers and make it so there would be no limit on the number of additional entities that can be registered to cultivate marijuana for research purposes. It would also require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to submit a report to Congress within five years after enactment to overview the results of federal cannabis studies and recommend whether they warrant marijuana’s rescheduling under federal law.

“The cannabis laws in this country are broken, including our laws that govern cannabis research,” Blumenauer said in remarks in the Congressional Record. “Because cannabis is a Schedule I substance, researchers must jump through hoops and comply with onerous requirements just to do basic research on the medical potential of the plant.”

The new legislation will “both streamline the often-duplicative licensure process for researchers seeking to conduct cannabis research and facilitate access to an increased supply of higher quality medical grade cannabis for research purposes,” he said, adding that expanded studies will help make sure “Americans have adequate access to potentially transformative medicines and treatments.”

For half a century, researchers have only been able to study marijuana grown at a single federally approved facility at the University of Mississippi, but they have complained that it is difficult to obtain the product and that it is of low quality. Indeed, one study showed that the government cannabis is more similar to hemp than to the marijuana that consumers actually use in the real world.

There’s been bipartisan agreement that DEA has inhibited cannabis research by being slow to follow through on approving additional marijuana manufacturers beyond the Mississippi operation, despite earlier pledges to do so.

In May, the agency finally said it was ready to begin licensing new cannabis cultivators. Last week, DEA proposed a large increase in the amount of marijuana—and psychedelics such as psilocybin, LSD, MDMA and mescaline—that it wants produced in the U.S. for research purposes next year.

Under the new House bill, the agency would be forced to start approving additional cultivation applications for study purposes within one year of the legislation’s enactment.

HHS and the attorney general would be required under the bill to create a process for marijuana manufacturers and distributors to supply researchers with cannabis from dispensaries. They would have one year after enactment to develop that procedure, and would have to start meeting to work on it within 60 days of the bill’s passage.

In general, the legislation would also establish a simplified registration process for researchers interested in studying cannabis, in part by reducing approval wait times, minimizing costly security requirements and eliminating additional layers of protocol review.

Read the full text of the new marijuana research bill below:

Click to access medical-marijuana-research-act-hr-5657-text.pdf

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.
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