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Washington state prisoners released after drug law is voided

April 13, 2021 GMT

SEATTLE (AP) — More than a dozen prisoners have been released from custody after the Washington Supreme Court voided the state’s drug possession law, with more to come.

Gov. Jay Inslee said Tuesday he has commuted the sentences of 13 prisoners who were doing time for drug possession.

More commutations are on the way — Inslee’s office said he expected to sign at least two more before the day was up.

In a sweeping 5-4 decision with implications for tens of thousands of cases dating back decades, the court ruled in February that the state law making simple drug possession a crime was unconstitutional because it did not require prosecutors to prove that the defendant knowingly possessed the drugs.

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Lawmakers have been wrestling with how to respond to the ruling, which leaves possession of small amounts of drugs legal in Washington. Possession of larger amounts — with intent to distribute — remains unlawful.

Lawyers say that many thousands of defendants will be eligible to have convictions dating back decades vacated under the ruling. As the justice system works to figure out the process for doing so, and as the high court considers a request by prosecutors to reconsider the ruling, Inslee said he was offering unconditional commutations as a way to speed the releases of anyone in custody solely for simple drug possession.