Tens of thousands of Washington state residents with past drug convictions may have a reason to rejoice, as a decades-old drug possession law in the state was wiped out. On February 25, the Washington Supreme Court struck down the state’s felony drug possession law because it did not require prosecutors to prove someone knowingly or intentionally possessed drugs, as seen in every other state.
The ruling was spurred by a Spokane-based woman who was given a pair of jeans with crystal meth in the pocket—a woman who clearly should not have been prosecuted for possession of someone else’s drugs.
Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud and five other justices said that Washington’s law was unconstitutional because it criminalized unknowing and passive behaviors—with the lack of due process. A letter carrier, for example, who inadvertently delivers a package containing a substance could be prosecuted under the existing law.
“Attaching the harsh penalties of felony conviction, lengthy imprisonment, stigma, and the many collateral consequences that accompany every felony drug conviction to entirely innocent and passive conduct exceeds the legislature’s powers,” Gordon McCloud wrote.
The case could prove to have vast implications, as attorneys estimate that tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of convictions could be vacated, and current prisoners may need to be resentenced for past drug possession convictions.
“This is a sweeping ruling,” Mark Middaugh told The Associated Press. Middaugh is a lawyer who wrote a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the state ACLU chapter. “We are going to be doing a lot of work for the foreseeable future to get those convictions vacated and off people’s records.”
The decision leaves Washington without a prohibition on simple possession of controlled substances. Representative Roger Goodman, chair of the state House Public Safety Committee, said lawmakers are slammed and barely had time to let the ruling sink in, but he predicts that they will approve a new statute.
Meanwhile, a group called Treatment First Washington is behind a bill that would decriminalize drugs in the state.