Marijuana legalization has swept the nation over the last few years, with states like Colorado and Washington leading a national charge for cannabis reform. But there are repercussions to new legislation when it comes to marijuana, and three teens in southeastern Washington are finding that out the hard way.
The Associated Press reported via KUTV.com Sept. 21 that three Asotin County teens, ages 14, 15 and 17, are facing felonies for underage possession, which could result in five year prison sentences. Before marijuana legalization passed in Washington, possession of marijuana was only considered a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of 90 days in jail. Today, legal marijuana users who are of over the age of 21 can smoke themselves senseless, while curious teens are subject to the harshest penalties.
The new language was passed this year, and Republican State Sen. Ann Rivers, who sponsored Senate Bill 5052, said, “We have to send a message to our kids: This will hurt you in more ways than one if you decide to participate.” But is five years in prison a realistic punishment for a low-level crime that has been perpetrated by teens since the ’60s? Washington Gov. Jay Inslee seems to think not. Yet he was the one that ultimately signed the bill into law.
“I can only tell you that this was not the intention that the governor had when working with legislators on this bill,” explained Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Gov. Islee. “There are other ways to [keep marijuana out of the hands of minors] without charging them with felonies.”
Regardless of whether or not that was the bill’s intention, that is the reality facing these three teens. According to law, they are set to receive felonies. And the only way that sentence can be overturned is if the law changes and the teens petition for a rescindment of the conviction. “That’s an awfully high price for a few people to have to pay for faulty legislative work,” Asotin County public defender Rick Laws told the Associated Press.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington released a statement regarding the three teenagers facing felony possession charges. “From a policy perspective it’s a bad idea to prosecute a felony charge against a juvenile for possessing a small amount of marijuana,” the statement read. “It will burden the young person with a permanent criminal record, which will impact their lives by making it harder to get student loans and to get a job. Juveniles with substance abuse problems need treatment, not harsh criminal punishments.”
While the charges and legal proceedings of this case are still very much in process, one thing is clear, Washington must carefully reconsider the punishments for underage marijuana possession, especially when the repercussions for these teens have such long term implications.