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Teens Face Felony Pot Possession Charges Owing To Change In Wash. Law

Recreational marijuana use is legal in Washington state — but only for adults. And after the state's law was tweaked this summer, minors who break that rule risk felony charges. That's the case for three minors in Asotin County, who could now face up to five years in prison.

A prosecutor in Asotin, along the Idaho border, is charging three teenagers (ages 14, 15 and 17) with marijuana possession, which was designated a class C felony in July, when an update to Washington's pot law was enacted. Before the change, the minors' offense would have warranted misdemeanor charges punishable by 90 days in jail.

Coming more than two years after recreational marijuana became legal in Washington, the update to the law was primarily concerned with simplifying the tax structure around pot sales, setting an excise tax rate of 37 percent.

The felony charges are an "unintended consequence" of the new law, a representative from Gov. Jay Inslee's office tells The Lewiston Tribune.

But the law's sponsor, Sen. Ann Rivers, says the penalty was meant to emphasize that minors should stay away from marijuana.

"We have to send a message to our kids: This will hurt you in more ways than one if you decide to participate," Rivers said, according to The Associated Press.

If they're found guilty of the felony offenses, Asotin County Prosecutor Ben Nichols says, the teenagers could eventually seek to have their convictions vacated if the state revises a portion of the law in the Legislature's next session.

"That's an awfully high price for a few people to have to pay for faulty legislative work," Asotin County public defender Rick Laws, who's representing one of the teens, tells the AP.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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