New marijuana law side effect: Youth possession now a felony

Editor's note: In a follow-up to this story, the prosecutor admitted he had misinterpreted state law and that the teens should have been charged with a misdemeanor, not a felony. The charges therefore have been reduced.

LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) - A prosecutor in southeastern Washington has charged three teens with felonies for marijuana possession, saying a new law demands the higher level of offense.

The Lewiston Tribune in Idaho reports the teens ages 14, 15 and 17 have been charged in nearby Asotin County with felonies that could net them up to five years in prison. The offense was previously a misdemeanor with a maximum 90-day jail sentence.

Asotin County Prosecutor Ben Nichols said Senate Bill 5052, which the Legislature passed and Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law this year, contains the new language.

"If you are a minor, a person under 21, it's a felony no matter what," Nichols said.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said the tougher penalty was designed to deter minors from trying an adult drug.

"We have to send a message to our kids: This will hurt you in more ways than one if you decide to participate," Rivers said.

An Inslee spokeswoman told The Tribune, however, the felony charge for minors is not what he intended in a law focused on regulating the state's medical marijuana system.

"I can only tell you that this was not the intention that the governor had when working with legislators on this bill," Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith said.

Smith said parties had agreed at the time that keeping marijuana out of the hands of minors was a priority, "but there are other ways to do that without charging them with felonies."

The governor can't change the law himself, but lawmakers could when they meet for the 2016 legislative session.

Rick Laws, an Asotin County public defender who represents one of the juveniles, said that doesn't help his client in the meantime.

"That's an awfully high price for a few people to have to pay for faulty legislative work," he said.

Nichols said if the law is changed, anyone convicted would have to return to court and ask to have that conviction vacated.