Felons Can Now Get Cannabis Licenses in Washington State

Class C felonies won’t automatically terminate an application for a cannabis license, plus other updates.
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Felons will no longer be automatically barred from getting a cannabis license in Washington State, beginning next Saturday on October 2. Several updates to the rule now allow some people with serious felonies to obtain cannabis licenses, on a case-by-case basis.

That’s thanks to a new rule set by the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board that will go into effect shortly. Anyone who obtains a license must first pass an obligatory background check, but now, a felony on a record won’t necessarily be an automatic disqualifier.

Serious felony convictions within the past 10 years, however, will still trigger deeper scrutiny of a person’s application. But the rules no longer bar people with felonies from receiving a license. 

The protocol for less serious felonies also was updated. Specifically, one Class C felony on a record won’t automatically bar their license application. In addition, if someone has fewer than three misdemeanor convictions in the past three years, that won’t be enough to prompt a deeper review. 

Failure to report an old misdemeanor from juvenile court won’t count against applicants anymore, either.

With a strong focus on social equity in recent years, the rule change is being celebrated by cannabis business people because it allows people who were arrested at disproportionate rates to enter the legal industry.

“I think it’s great what the state is doing in terms of allowing people who have issues in the past, to be able to qualify,” Tran Du, co-owner of Shawn Kemp’s Cannabis in Seattle, told KOMO News.

The idea behind the rule change is that people who were arrested at disproportionate rates for cannabis shouldn’t be barred from participating in the industry, now that it’s legal.

“We wanted to bring parity in the disproportionality that we saw from the leftover of the war on drugs and that Black people were being arrested and brown people were being arrested disproportionately,” said Representative Melanie Morgan (D-Parkland) who is also chair of the state Social Equity on Cannabis Task Force.

Morgan stressed the need to get the state’s priorities in line. “The bottom line is bringing parity to the industry and making sure that Black and brown people have equal access to this industry in ownership,” she said.

Why Allow Felons?

Disparities in arrest rates of people of color are evident in numerous states, and Washington state is no different.

A study conducted by the Marijuana Arrest Research Project, entitled “240,000 Marijuana Arrests Costs, Consequences, and Racial Disparities of Possession Arrests in Washington, 1986‐2010,” found that although African Americans and Latinx people consume marijuana at lower rates than whites, African Americans were arrested for marijuana crimes at 2.9 times the rate of whites in the state. Latinos were arrested at 1.6 times the rate of whites.

The burden of a felony can prevent some people from participating in the cannabis industry. As an example, High Times highlighted the case of Katree Darriel Saunders, who was barred from Nevada’s industry over a pot charge. As a one-time employee in the Nevada medical space, served four months in federal prison over a probation violation after choosing cannabis over opioids to treat trauma and injuries. That choice has burdened Saunders for over a decade, largely preventing her from participating in the industry despite years of experience, success and an otherwise spotless record. 

Other routes into the cannabis industry are available, depending on what state you live in. Several states that have legalized marijuana also offer opportunities for convicts to expunge their records.

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