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Originally published September 19, 2013 at 4:22 PM | Page modified September 20, 2013 at 1:09 PM

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Guest: It’s time to end felony charges for simple drug possession

The felonization of low-level drug possession is a regressive policy that fosters perpetual criminals, writes guest columnist Anthony Martinelli.

Special to The Times

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IN Washington the possession of any controlled substance, or over 40 grams of marijuana, is an automatic felony charge with a potential prison sentence of five years. As a result, our prisons are filled with nonviolent individuals at taxpayer expense. This is unjust and not in line with public opinion.

Sensible Washington, the nonprofit organization that promoted cannabis-legalization initiatives in 2010 and 2011 that didn’t reach the ballot but helped pave the way for the measure that did, recently announced a legislative proposal to defelonize the simple possession of all drugs.

Under the law of Washington, adult possession of a controlled substance, when not intended for distribution, would be reduced from a felony charge to a misdemeanor, with a maximum sentence of 90 days.

State Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, will be the primary sponsor of this proposal in the House of Representatives. Reps. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, and Chris Reykdal, D-Tumwater, have all signed on as official co-sponsors, with more to be announced soon. Sensible Washington hopes to have a companion bill filed simultaneously in the Senate.

This proposal would neither legalize nor decriminalize the possession of illegal drugs. It would simply reduce the penalty for the possession of any controlled substance, including cannabis, cocaine and opiates, to a misdemeanor.

It is a way of reducing the harms associated with the felonization of low-level drug possession, which is a regressive policy that fosters perpetual criminals. Once labeled a felon, a person loses important opportunities for housing, work and education. Such a loss benefits neither the offender nor society.

A recent report released by the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics states that there are more than 330,000 inmates in state and federal prison for nonviolent drug-related offenses. A disproportionate majority of them are minorities, who are drastically more likely to be harassed, arrested and prosecuted for drug-related crimes.

We must take a more humane, sensible approach to our drug policies, rather than simply throwing people in prison.

This proposal also corrects the massive disparity in our state’s cannabis law. In Washington, the possession of up to an ounce of cannabis is no longer a crime, due to the passage of Initiative 502 last November.

However, possession of an ounce and a half (anything over 40 grams), is a felony with a potential five-year prison sentence. In addition, certain situations could lead to two people who each have an ounce of cannabis both being charged with felonies thanks to “constructive-possession” laws. This proposal will remove the felony conviction for all adult cannabis-possession charges, unless intent to distribute is proven.

Defelonizing simple drug possession will also reduce the financial burden associated with the war on drugs. Currently taxpayers fund the incarceration of numerous nonviolent individuals who are in prison solely because they, at some point, were found in possession of an illegal substance.

Reducing personal drug-possession charges to a misdemeanor with a maximum of 90 days retains the illegality of hard drugs while reducing the penalty to something more appropriate.

Harsh criminal penalties for low-level drug offenses have done nothing to reduce drug addiction. It’s past time for us to take a more reasonable, modern approach. Defelonizing simple drug possession is a significant step in the right direction.

Anthony Martinelli is communications director for Sensible Washington.


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