Q&A With Washington State Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, Sponsor Of House Bill 1661

Joe Fitzgibbon was elected to the Washington State House of Representatives in 2010, winning with 57.3% of the vote in the 34th district. Since then, Joe has been a champion for progressive issues, including cannabis law reform.

State Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon.
State Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon.

Recently he’s made news with the filing of House Bill 1661, which we announced last week. This bill would make the drastic and excellent move of allowing any individual who’s been charged with a cannabis possession misdemeanor in Washington State to have it remove from their record (which could directly effect the livelihood of tens of thousands of people).

We had the opportunity to spend some time chatting with Representative Fitzgibbon, and were able to ask him a few questions.

A lot has changed from the last legislative session to the current one, including the passage of Initiative 502. Do you feel a shift of energy when it comes to cannabis law reform, or is it business as usual?

Many legislators got the message sent by the voters with I-502 loud and clear. For a long time, legislators have viewed cannabis reform as an issue that would make them look soft on crime, and now there is much more interest in looking at how we can make cannabis law (I-502 and otherwise) work better for the people of our state.

You recently filed House Bill 1661, which relates to clearing people of past marijuana misdemeanors. Can you explain this bill a little, and why you feel it’s so important?

HB 1661 would allow people with a marijuana misdemeanor (possession of 40 grams or less) to go to court and have their records cleared. Thanks to I-502, possession of an ounce of pot (28 grams) is no longer a crime in Washington, but there are still thousands of people in Washington who have a possession conviction on their records, which can be a big problem when applying for a job, housing, or higher education. I had the idea for this bill when many county prosecutors, including in King and Pierce counties, dropped all pending marijuana possession charges. I thought that was a great start, but wondered about all the people from decades and decades of prohibition who still had a conviction on their records, and wondered what it would take to give them a fresh start. I’m very optimistic that we will be able to move this legislation forward this year.

For this piece of legislation you garnered 20 additional sponsors including a couple Republicans. Was this a challenge, or is this a move you’ve found our elected officials are ready for?

Most of the legislators I discussed this with were eager to sign on. In fact, the most common response I got was, “This should have been in the initiative.” I assume the initiative sponsors didn’t want to overreach, so this is an opportunity for the Legislature to demonstrate that we heard the voters loud and clear on the issue of cannabis prohibition.

Initiative 502 has passed, regulations for retail sales are in the works, and medical cannabis patients continue to fight for protections. It’s a tough question, but what do you see the environment looking like here in Washington in 5 years, as it relates to our cannabis policies?

The future is still very unclear both for medical and recreational cannabis, because of the prospect of federal intervention, the Liquor Control Board’s ongoing work to enact rules to implement I-502, and the questions around how the Legislature may amend medical cannabis provisions. In general I expect to see the medical and recreational markets look more like one another than they currently do.

What helped form your view that we need to legalize cannabis, and put behind us the travesty of its prohibition?

It’s always been clear to me, and to most in my generation, that the problems associated with cannabis use are less in scale than those associate with legal substances such as alcohol and tobacco. The prohibition of cannabis drives the cannabis trade underground to the black market, causes drug-related violence, results in serious environmental harm, and ruins millions of lives. Our state and nation will be better off when cannabis is dealt with in a well-regulated legal market.

What inspired you to become a lawmaker?

I chose to run for the Legislature because I felt there was a need for a Legislature that was more representative of all the people of our state, including young people. It hadn’t seemed to me that the Legislature was taking enough of a long-term view of the problems facing the future of our state, such as environmental problems.

Given that you’re one of the younger elected officials in Washington’s history, do you ever feel that other lawmakers treat you differently based on your age?

Yes, there are some legislators that have a hard time giving the same respect to someone much younger than them than they would give to someone their own age. But I have found that by working hard, developing good relationships, and knowing the issues you work on, most legislators quickly move on from their first impressions. I was elected at age 24, and luckily there have been many other legislators younger than that over the course of our state’s history, and since I was elected in 2010, several other qualified young people have been elected to the Legislature.

Do you get frustrated jumping through the legal hoops involved with being a State Rep., or is it just par for the course?

Every legislative session is frustrating, because there are so many points in the process that a good idea can get killed. But at the end of the day if we are able to achieve something positive for our constituents, it is worth it.

Is there any other cannabis reform legislation that you’re involved with this session?

The only cannabis-related bill I am working on this year is HB 1661, though there are many other ideas that other legislators are working on, such as amendments to I-502 dealing with the taxation regime for cannabis, and ongoing discussions about how to improve the medical cannabis law.

We’d like to thank Joe for taking the time to speak with us, and for working towards cannabis law reform!

– TheJointBlog

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