For Buddy McArdle, a Real Change vendor and Boston native, the days of criminalized marijuana possession in Washington state still haunt him.
It started Christmas Eve in 2011, when McArdle and a friend were heading to a teriyaki restaurant in Redmond to spend some cash McArdle had made earlier that day selling Real Change. “I did very well,” said McArdle. “And so I decided to take this friend of mine out for dinner.”
According to McArdle, several generous individuals he and his friend had met on a bus gifted them several grams of marijuana. “Just for Christmas Eve,” he said.
But at the teriyaki joint, Buddy realized his friend had been drinking, maybe a little too much. The restaurant owners ended up calling the police, and McArdle’s gifted stash was discovered by the cops. He was charged with possession, though apparently was never prosecuted by the King County District Court system, which handles Redmond’s municipal court functions.
Less than a year later in autumn 2012, McArdle was living in Kirkland, in Tent City 4. He said he was stopped by local police for jaywalking, and, after running his name, an officer discovered McArdle had an outstanding warrant for marijuana possession. The officer handcuffed McArdle and took him to jail, where he spent the night.
Time and again during the following year, McArdle returned to court, where he eventually pled guilty and received a sentence of one day in jail, and a $900 fine or community service. But by then, state voters had already passed I-502, which legalized possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for adults 21 and over.
“Three or four months [after the second arrest], they legalized it,” he said. “And it’s been legalized ever since.”
If McArdle were in possession of the same amount of marijuana today, he wouldn’t be charged or arrested for possession.
He said he hasn’t fulfilled any court-ordered obligations since being sentenced, because he doesn’t have $900 and is focused on day-to-day survival.
“I don’t think that they’re probably going to overturn that [warrant] because the law was the law before it happened,” he said.
On that score, he seems to be right.
McArdle and untold others exist in a hazy legal realm. Even though marijuana is legal now, anyone arrested on a pot-related charge prior to January 2014, when the initiative was enacted, is still responsible for something that may no longer be a crime.
So now, because McArdle came early to the party, he faces the consequences of being caught with marijuana in the pre-I-502 era.
And once a defendant pleads guilty to or is found guilty of a crime and a judicial court delivers a sentence, the defendant is obligated to fulfill it, despite the relevance of the charges to more contemporary laws.
“There’s nothing specific that the city [of Redmond] could offer him,” said Larry Mitchell, prosecuting attorney for the city of Redmond. “Once those obligations are memorialized in the judge’s sentence, then the only avenue of relief would be to request relief from the court.”
Legal avenues currently exist to both clear one’s criminal record, including if there are no other pending criminal charges, and to request relief from court obligations if someone is unable to pay the fines. A defendant can also appeal to a given judge to drop the sentence.
McArdle said that while he hasn’t tried any of these routes, he fears his record will hinder his search for work, especially in the day-labor profession.
“Maybe they do a background check on you right away,” he said. “Who knows?”
Criminal history also affects rental housing, where landlords screen prospective tenants, often at the tenants’ expense.
I-502 wasn’t written to address situations like McArdle’s, and it focuses only on decriminalization and creating a legal regulated framework for the production and sale of the plant.
“There were thousands of arrests taking place in the state of Washington every year, for that crime, and that no longer is the case, which I think is a really good thing,” said Mark Cooke, policy advisor with the ACLU of Washington.
In 2012, The Seattle Times reported that researchers at City University of New York found that 241,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession over the previous 25 years, the majority having occurred in the past 10.
Meanwhile, the current marijuana-related debate in Seattle and Olympia has been centered on if it’s possible to integrate the medical marijuana market with the highly regulated recreational market. Little discourse has focused on situations like McArdle’s.
During a recent East Precinct public safety meeting, where Seattle Police Department brass and City Attorney Pete Holmes met with community members, Holmes said that “folding” the two markets together is a “priority” for him and the legislature. He added he supports creating better avenues for addressing those still serving sentences or who have outstanding legal obligations.
John Schochet, deputy chief of staff for Holmes, said the city attorney supports I-502. “The goal is to prove marijuana legislation can work,” he said.
Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-West Seattle, has repeatedly introduced legislation that would vacate the records of people who have misdemeanor marijuana charges and who were 21 or older at the time of the offense. The bills have failed to leave the Public Safety Committee in the past two legislative sessions.
“I-502 is not going to be the silver bullet,” said Cooke of the ACLU. “But it’s a step in the right direction.”
McArdle said he isn’t too concerned with eventual consequences and instead wants to focus on finding employment after being homeless for almost eight years. But at the same time, he anticipates the day he is picked up by police.
“If they stop me for whatever reason [like] disorderly, it’s just another charge to throw on there,” he said. “They give you enough rope to hang yourself.”
He said that being homeless certainly doesn’t help him avoid situations where he could potentially encounter police and be picked up again. It’s tough being homeless, he said, “because you always seem to be stuck out somewhere. But that’s the way it is.”