For eight seasons on television, we enjoyed the adventures of Eric Forman and his pals Steven Hyde, Jackie Burkhart, Michael Kelso, Donna Pinciotti and the lovable foreign exchange student known only as Fez on the hit series “That ‘70s Show.”
A mainstay of the show was the group sitting in a smoky room as the camera swung around to highlight each teenager—evoking the ritual of a joint-smoking circle without ever explicitly showing the joint (it was a family sitcom, after all). The teenagers even had a stereotypical middle-aged stoner friend named Leo, played by legendary stoner Tommy Chong.
Through all of their adventures and hijinks, the worst outcome was to face the wrath of Eric’s father, “Red” Forman. But imagine, if instead of “Red” threatening to put his foot up Eric’s ass, it was the Milwaukee County Sheriff hauling Eric, Kelso and Fez out of the basement in handcuffs, charging them with felonies. Imagine a judge handing them a prison sentence that meant the next time they saw freedom, it was in the middle of “That ‘80s Show”?
Fortunately for fictional Eric Forman, “That ‘70s Show” was set in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin in the 1970s—and not in Asotin County, Washington in 2015.
The Associated Press reported that three teenagers in Washington, aged 14, 15 and 17, are being charged with felony marijuana possession, thanks to the passage of Senate Bill 5052. Most marijuana law observers had paid great attention to how SB 5052 radically changed the medical marijuana market in Washington State, but few paid attention to this section regarding marijuana possession by minors.
Section 14 of the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 69.50.4013 already stated in paragraph (1) that it’s illegal to have drugs except with a prescription—or a recommendation, in the case of medical marijuana.
Paragraph (2) already stated that breaking the law in Section 14 is a class C felony, unless you’re covered by RCW 69.50.4014.
Paragraph (3) already stated that adults who are legal to possess marijuana when Initiative 502 passed aren’t covered by this section.
The new language from SB 5052 is paragraph (4), which states, “No person under twenty-one years of age may possess, manufacture, sell, or distribute marijuana, marijuana-infused products, or marijuana concentrates, regardless of THC concentration. This does not include qualifying patients with a valid authorization.”
So, if you’re in possession of marijuana at age 20 or younger, paragraph (3) doesn’t apply. If you have no medical marijuana recommendation, paragraph (1) doesn’t apply. You now fit under paragraph (4), and if you’re violating that, paragraph (2) applies. You’ve committed a class C felony.
When this story broke on Friday, observers were shocked that minors in Washington, a state with legal marijuana, could be charged with felonies for personal possession, when marijuana is legal for adults and when the maximum analogous penalty for minors in possession of alcohol is a $500 fine and two months in jail.
When reached for comment by the Lewiston Tribune, the paper that broke the story, the sponsor of SB 5052, Republican Senator Ann Rivers, told reporters, “We have to send a message to our kids: This will hurt you in more ways than one if you decide to participate.”
Yeah, it will brand them felons for life, take five years of their youth and make college and employment nearly impossible to find. The message to teens seems to be, “If we catch you smoking pot, like one in six of you are likely to do, we will destroy your future.”
The Tribune also spoke to Washington State Liquor & Cannabis Board enforcement chief, Justin Nordhorn, who said that it seems as if underage possession of marijuana is “a class C felony, based on connecting the dots.”
On Saturday, however, the Asotin County prosecutor, Ben Nichols, changed his mind, downgrading the charges for the teenagers to misdemeanors. The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys advised Nichols that underage possession of marijuana, at least below the adult felony threshold of 40 grams, remains a misdemeanor.
How is that? Remember paragraph (2) in Section 14, how it said breaking that law was a class C felony, unless you’re covered by RCW 69.50.4014? It so happens that this other law says possession by any person (even teenagers) of less than 40 grams is a misdemeanor, unless it is possession with intent to deliver.
So, no, Washington State has not felonized “That ‘70s Show.” What Washington had was an over-zealous prosecutor who couldn’t read through all the confusing laws as well as a writer at Reason.
It’s hard to blame him when the law’s own author, Sen. Rivers, wasn’t countering the report of teenage felony charges and when a spokesperson for the governor said, “If prosecutors are finding that this language allows them to [charge teens with possession felonies], that was not the intention.”
Well, OK, we can at least blame him for scaring the hell out of three teenagers and their parents who spent a day terrified by felony charges that weren’t deserved.