In July, Washington State recently opened its online reimbursement center, called the Blake Refund Bureau, to cover court-ordered fines or costs in relation to drug possession convictions. Since then, the state has already approved reimbursements for a total of $276,000.
The Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) launched the Blake Refund Bureau more than two years after the court ruling was made for State v. Blake in February 2021, when the Washington Superior Court ruled that arresting people for drug possession was unconstitutional.
The foundation of the case involved a woman who received a pair of jeans from a friend in 2016, which had a small bag of methamphetamine hidden in the coin pocket. The state charged her with possession of a controlled substance, but she claimed “unwitting possession” in her defense.
This premise established a discussion of those who unknowingly handle or harbor drugs. According to Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud, a postal worker can unknowingly deliver packages that contain drugs, or a roommate can hide drugs in a shared living space. “Attaching the harsh penalties of felony conviction, lengthy imprisonment, stigma, and the many collateral consequences that accompany every felony drug conviction to entirely innocent and passive conduct exceeds the legislature’s powers,” Gordon explained.
“In 2021, the Washington State Supreme Court found the law criminalizing drug possession unconstitutional,” AOC stated. “As a result of this decision, known as State v. Blake, any Blake-related convictions qualify to be removed (vacated) from one’s criminal record, and any legal financial obligations (LFOs) paid as a result qualify for financial reimbursement.” Washington State police departments were instructed to no longer arrest people for simple drug possession.
Anyone convicted of drug possession prior to the conclusion of State v. Blake, or before February 25, 2021, is eligible to have their conviction cleared, as well as reimbursed for any relative costs. The Olympian stated that an estimated 20,000 felony drug possession charges that date back to the 1970s could be eligible for vacating, in addition to 150,000 misdemeanor cannabis charges.
Robin Zimmerman, a senior communications officer at the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts, recently told The Olympian that the reimbursement amount is increasing every day, and that “payments for the online application refunds are on track to be processed and issued within 90 days.”
Zimmerman also added that state courts have paid out $9.4 million in LFO refunds. Before the Blake Refund Bureau was established, refunds were issued to state cities and counties until June 30. Now, more than 30,000 people have viewed the website, and 25,000 cases have been made online, with that number increasing daily. “Blake team members are working on processing applications and collaborating with justice partners in outreach efforts to help inform Blake-impacted individuals across Washington State about the relief opportunities now available,” Zimmerman said.
The initial court ruling was on track to expire this year on July 1, but in May 2023 Washington State legislators attended a special session to pass a law that was later signed by Gov. Jay Inslee.
According to Sen. June Robinson told The News Tribune in May that it was the most challenging legislation she’s worked on throughout her entire career. “Luckily we are moving as a society to understand that addiction is a disease,” Robinson said. “However, unfortunately, we do not have built-up infrastructure and committed and trained staff to suitably address this disease in every corner of our state today. Over and over again we’ve heard that a solution we propose needs to put treatment options in front. I believe this striking amendment does that.”
May was a good month for Washington State, which also saw other bills passed by Gov. Inslee. He signed a bill that expands the number of social equity licenses by 52 between 2024 and 2032. Bill sponsor Sen. Rebecca Saldaña explained the importance of her bill. “Building pathways of opportunity and flexibility for people of color disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs is not only a moral imperative, but a crucial step towards a more just and equitable society,” said Saldaña. “We heal the harms of the past by our commitment to action and change today.”
Inslee also signed a separate bill that would protect employees from pre-employment drug testing. According to NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano, this was a huge step forward. “Urine screening for off-the-job cannabis consumption has never been an evidence-based policy,” said Armentano. “Rather, this discriminatory practice is a holdover from the zeitgeist of the 1980s War on Drugs. But times have changed; attitudes have changed, and in many places, the marijuana laws have changed. It is time for workplace policies to adapt to this new reality and to cease punishing employees for activities they engage in during their off-hours that pose no workplace safety threat.”
The Seattle Times reported in December 2022 that the state saw a decrease in sales for the first time since legalization began in 2014. Although the state reported $509 million in excise tax revenue for fiscal year 2022—an 8% decline compared to sales from fiscal year 2021. Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board spokesperson Brian Smith explained that one reason for this could be because of the transition from pandemic-based remote work back to in-person work.
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