Washington state currently has five prisoners serving time for charges in which marijuana is the most serious offense, the Washington Department of Corrections tells The Clemency Report. The state another 107 prisoners serving time on charges that included marijuana but not as the most serious offense. 

The state does not return offenders to prison for completion of a sentence when marijuana is found in a post-release urine analysis, although finding evidence of marijuana use in a urine sample can, in some instances, result in a person being sent to jail for one to three days.

By contrast, as The Clemency Report reported Friday, Colorado estimates it has more than 100 marijuana offenders in state prison, about one-third of them sent back to prison to complete sentences after failing a post-release urine test. 

Score one for Washington in its friendly competition with Colorado do implement voter-approved marijuana legalization in an effective way. Both states deserve credit for being far ahead of other states. Some states have many prisoners serving long sentences — including life without parole — for nonviolent marijuana offenses. The federal government has more than 20 inmates serving life without parole for nonviolent marijuana offenses.

Washington State Department of Corrections spokesman Norah West explains her state’s approach more fully:

First, you won’t see a lot of people in Washington prisons solely for marijuana charges – we have one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country, meaning the state reserves incarceration for higher-risk, more violent offenders. Only 113 – just more than half of 1 percent – of 17,435 offenders in Washington are serving a sentence in which marijuana was *part* of the crime. In only five of those is marijuana the most serious crime. No one is serving a sentence *just* for marijuana.

Washington does not have parole, so the only way a person gets “sent back to prison” is if they are convicted of a new felony and sentenced to more than one year. We do have community supervision, and when offenders violate the conditions of their supervision we do apply sanctions. If an offender has a condition not to use marijuana and they test positive for marijuana, they will be sanctioned for that (typically a penalty of one to three days in jail).

In order to better align with Washington’s new state law, the Department of Corrections did recently change its policy to eliminate routine testing for marijuana in those cases where prohibition of marijuana use is not already a condition of supervision. Courts can still sentence offenders to conditions prohibiting marijuana use, and community corrections officers can impose a condition prohibiting marijuana use if use of marijuana appears to have a negative impact on the offender’s supervision.

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