Three Asotin County teenagers charged with felonies for possessing marijuana under a new Washington law could see their cases reduced to misdemeanors based on advice from the state's prosecuting attorney association.
Asotin County Prosecutor Ben Nichols said he expects to downgrade the teens' charges to misdemeanors next week after being given the go-ahead by an attorney for the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
"What I'm being told is I can still charge juveniles, even after the law change, with misdemeanor possession," Nichols said.
He previously maintained that a portion of a bill signed into law in July by Gov. Jay Inslee mandated the felony route for anyone younger than 21 charged for possession of marijuana.
"I was in a situation where I was painted into a corner," Nichols said.
Tom McBride, executive secretary of the nonprofit Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said his opinion is that the law is confusing, but ultimately does not make simple possession of marijuana by minors a felony.
"The best interpretation is that simple possession of under 40 grams of marijuana continues to be a misdemeanor," McBride said. "That doesn't change the fact that I think it's very confusing."
Language vetoed by the governor that might well have increased the penalty for minors was still included in the bill when Nichols attended a prosecuting attorneys conference in April, McBride said. It would have taken knowledge not only of the vetoed sections but of a separate bill approved later in the session, he said, for a prosecutor to arrive at the conclusion the crime remains a misdemeanor for minors.
"I can see exactly how it got crosswise," McBride said.
A representative from Inslee's office previously said charging minors with felonies was never the purpose of the legislation.
"I can only tell you that this was not the intention that the governor had when working with legislators on this bill," spokeswoman Jaime Smith said Thursday.
But earlier in the week, bill sponsor Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said including stiffer penalties for minors served a purpose within the law, a lengthy document meant to reconcile the state's existing medical marijuana laws with newer recreational marijuana laws.
"We needed to send a message to our kids that this is an adult activity," Rivers said.
And Justin Nordhorn, enforcement chief for the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Control Board, said Thursday that upping the severity for minors is what the new law technically does.
Asotin County felony public defender Rick Laws, who represents one of the juveniles charged with a felony, had not yet received word Friday afternoon that the charges would be reduced.
"That is excellent news," Laws said when informed of Nichols' decision.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington also welcomed the news.
"We're very relieved to hear that the prosecutor is no longer charging these juveniles with felonies," said Mark Cooke, a policy director with the organization. "We also have significant questions about whether this new felony exists at all, since that was not (the) intent of the legislation."
Smith said the law likely would be clarified or fixed by legislators during the next session, a sentiment that was echoed by Nichols on Friday.
"I hope what you're going to see coming out of Olympia is you're going to see a cleanup of this mess," he said.
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