Washington’s Marijuana Legislation Blunder Results in Felony Charges for Teens

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According to federal law, marijuana is still illegal in the United States.  However, nearly half of the states have decided to allow it for medicinal reasons, and a handful permit it for recreationally for adults over the age of 21. In a 2013 memo, Deputy Attorney General James Cole essentially told federal prosecutors to turn a blind eye to those who broke federal law, provided they were within state guidelines, and that they did not cause conflict with the government’s main priorities, which mostly surround general public safety. In April 2015, the state of Washington revamped its marijuana laws, though the changes did not take effect until July 2015. SB 5052 aimed to crack down on people who were using marijuana unlawfully, though state officials now realize there are unintended consequences of their changes.

It’s a Felony to Violate Any of Washington’s Marijuana Laws

While lawmakers certainly wanted to discourage people from committing illegal acts, they overlooked the fact that it’s unlawful for anyone under the age of 21 to possess any amount of marijuana. Therefore, teenagers who would be perfectly within their rights to have it in their possession just a few years down the road, would be committing a Class C Felony by having it now. Over the summer, three teens in Washington were picked up on charges unrelated to marijuana, but because they had it in their possession, prosecutors had to charge them with a felony.

The Penalties for a Class C Felony are Severe

Anyone who is found guilty of a Class C Felony in Washington can face up to five years in prison, and may have to pay as much as $10,000 in fines. This includes the teens who were charged with possession- the youngest of which appears to be only 14. Moreover, a lifetime of issues come with a felonious history. The federal government restricts access to things like welfare and even student loans or grants. Many employers and landlords turn away people with a felony as well, so the effects of this one incident for a teen can have a huge impact on his quality of life for as long as he’s alive.

After a Reporter Applied Pressure, the Teens’ Charges were Reduced

Ben Nichols, a prosecutor from Asotin County implied that he didn’t necessarily agree with the laws, but that it was his job to prosecute as the law is written. “I felt that I was painted in a corner to charge juvenile offenders with a felony,” Nichols said in an interview. Despite this, all three kids were charged in various counties throughout the state, and the prosecutor simply did what was expected of him. It wasn’t until a reporter with the Lewiston Tribune approached Nichols and started asking questions that the lawyer began looking into loopholes. Ultimately, he was able find a way to reduce the charges. The law defines “possession” as having 40 grams (roughly 1.4 ounces), and anything less than that is a misdemeanor. Not only would the teens not have to be charged with felonies, but they would also be entitled to diversion programs, like counseling.

The Legislation Blunder was Partially Intentional

Most people who signed the law into effect seem to have totally missed the ramifications of it. A spokesperson for the governor said that stopping underage marijuana use was a priority, but that he didn’t believe charging them with felonies was the best way to do it. However, at least one legislator stepped forward and said that the whole point was to charge teens with felonies in an attempt to deter them from committing the crime. While the existing three cases have been reduced, no word has been given about how cases will be handled going forward.

Marijuana-related laws are still being developed and refined throughout the Unites States, and the events occurring in Washington are a side-effect of that growth. As it stands now, teens can be charged with felonies for possessing marijuana, and the loophole does not exist for those caught with more than 40 grams. Unless another loophole is discovered, prosecutors will have to charge kids with a felony if they’re found to have had an amount that reaches the legal requirements for possession. It’s quite likely the laws will change in the near future, because lawmakers and the governor seemed to have very different ideals when the legislation was created. However, for right now, it’s a very dangerous time for teens to have any amount of marijuana in the state of Washington.

Article Written by: Brian Musell a Metro Denver Criminal Defense Attorney

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Author: HMJ Staff


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