Pot-related bills advance in Wash. Legislature

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SEATTLE (AP) — Two marijuana-related bills advanced Thursday in Olympia, with legislative committees giving their OK to one measure that would block police from arresting medical marijuana patients and another that would let people have misdemeanor pot convictions erased.

The House Public Safety Committee voted 6-5 to recommend the bill on pot convictions be passed, and the Senate Health Care Committee approved the arrest-protection bill. The votes beat a deadline Friday for bills dealing with policy matters to be passed out of committee.

Democratic Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon of Burien told the House committee Wednesday that after Initiative 502 passed, allowing adults over 21 to have up to an ounce of marijuana under state law, he started thinking about the thousands of people who have criminal records for activity that is now legal — criminal records that can keep people from getting jobs, housing or loans.

Typically, people must wait three years after completing their sentence before asking to have a misdemeanor conviction vacated. The bill would eliminate that waiting period and remove other restrictions on having pot misdemeanors wiped clean.

The bill drew some objections at a hearing Thursday. The head of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Tom McBride, noted that the bill would allow people to have their convictions erased even if they had more marijuana than I-502 allows. Misdemeanor pot possession has historically been defined as up to 40 grams, but the new law only lets people have up to an ounce, or 28 grams.

It remains a misdemeanor to have between 28 grams and 40 grams, but under the bill anyone convicted of having that much in the future could immediately petition to have the conviction erased.

Ezra Eickmeyer, a lobbyist with the Washington Cannabis Association, said Thursday that was a pretty minor concern.

"What the people voted for was not to put people in jail and give them criminal convictions for possessing small amounts of marijuana," he said. "That's the principle that was passed. I'm appalled that the prosecutors are trying to make criminal convictions stick for people caught with small amounts of cannabis."

Eickmeyer said he was excited about the Senate committee's vote on the arrest-protection bill. State law currently allows those arrested and charged with marijuana crimes to present an "affirmative defense" to the charges in court if they're complying with the medical marijuana law; the bill would prevent them from being arrested in the first place if they present their valid medical marijuana authorization to police.

The measure doesn't do as much as he would like, Eickmeyer said, but he hopes it can be amended to include a regulatory system for medical marijuana dispensaries.

I-502 called for the creation of state-licensed growers, processors and retail stores for recreational marijuana, but no such plan exists for commercial medical marijuana dispensaries, which have been tolerated by police but operate outside the letter of state law.

Other pot-related bills pending in Olympia include one that would impose a 25-percent tax on sales at medical marijuana dispensaries.

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