Jul 27, 2023 - News

New portal to issue refunds in overturned drug cases in Washington state

Illustration of a pile of white powder with the negative space shaped like a gavel.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

It will soon be easier for Washingtonians with past drug convictions to get reimbursed for fees and fines they paid under the state's now-overturned drug law.

Driving the news: A new online portal will let people check whether they are eligible to get money back for court fines and penalties tied to old drug possession convictions in Washington state, after a 2021 court ruling struck down the state's felony drug possession law as unconstitutional.

  • The new statewide portal, which is slated to go live Saturday, also will create a centralized place where people can apply for reimbursement online.

Why it matters: State officials estimate that at least 260,000 past felony drug convictions are eligible to be vacated, or wiped off people's criminal records, because of the state Supreme Court's 2021 Blake decision.

  • Any fines or financial penalties that were applied in those cases are eligible for reimbursement. That's what the new portal is for.

Plus: People can also apply to get money back from any penalties they paid in connection with at least 126,000 misdemeanor marijuana convictions, which date to before Washington voters legalized the drug for adult recreational use in 2012.

What they're saying: "If people paid even $1 — or less than $1 — they are entitled to have that refund," Sharon Swanson with the state's Administrative Office of the Courts said during a recent media briefing.

The big picture: The refunds, along with the revision of the state's drug penalties more broadly, are part of a push to start treating drug use more as a public health problem than a criminal matter.

How it works: Before applying for a Blake-related refund, people must get their convictions formally vacated by the court. For help with that process, officials say people can call a state hotline at 360-586-3164, extension 218.

  • Then, using the online reimbursement portal, applicants must verify their identity by uploading documents such as a driver's license, passport or name change record.
  • State officials estimate it may take 90 days or so for people to get their money reimbursed.
  • Initially, the money will come in the form of a check in the mail, although the state is looking at whether it can deliver the funds in a different format, such as by direct deposit.

By the numbers: The state recently set aside $47 million to help process the vacating of convictions and another $50 million for providing the actual refunds, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.

What we're watching: A new law that went into effect this month treats drug possession as a gross misdemeanor instead of a felony, while encouraging prosecutors to divert drug possession cases to treatment or other services before trial.


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