State lawmakers mull bill to defelonize simple drug possession

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Arrests for simple drug possession would no longer be a felony if state lawmakers approve a measure that received its first hearing Tuesday at the state legislature.

Proponents of the bill say the war on drugs has needlessly ruined lives.

Sponsors of the bill (HB 2116) claim two million people have been locked in prison for simply possessing a controlled substance. And after these people have served their time, they emerge with a chance at very few jobs. It's all because of the label "felon."

Dawn Darington, who was convicted of a drug charge, was close to getting a job as a van driver.

"Went through the whole process," she said. "Checked my references, everything, Finally get to the point where they say, 'We can't hire you. You can't get a CDL (professional license) because you're a felon.'"

Jody Beery says her Eagle Scout son was helping a medically fragile friend take medical marijuana and was arrested for a felony.

"His whole life, his whole demeanor, everything changed," she said. "Everything he had been working for, the goals that he had talked to me about his whole life. Everything changed."

It's brought on calls for a lowering of the penalty.

"They bear a scarlet F for felon," testified bill supporter Kari Boiter. "Forced to endure a lifetime of discrimination, lost job opportunities, scarce housing and endless financial woes."

Others testified the label of felon is legally tough to shake.

"I learned that a felony conviction is a conviction for a lifetime," Mary Clare Kersten told the House committee. "You take it into Heaven or Hell with you."

The bill talks about all controlled substances from marijuana to methamphetamine and from to cocaine to heroin. The bill drops simple possession of drugs from a felony which can carrying prison terms of five years or more down to a misdemeanor which carries a jail term of up to 90 days.

However, the bill's sponsor said it doesn't excuse any crimes such as drug dealing, manufacturing or possessing large quantities of drugs.

"We are not excusing bad behavior," said Rep. Sherry Appleton (D-Poulsbo). "What we're saying is we're not going to ruin your life for the rest of the your life with a felony."

There was no testimony against the bill other than the concern by the Association of Washington Cities. The organization feared the cost of dealing with these cases would shift to them at a time when they have no additional money to pay for court and jail costs.