Since 2021, Gov. Jay Inslee and the Legislature knew that the state’s drug possession laws were in flux and needed to be fixed.
This year, while accomplishing many important achievements such as an assault weapons ban, lawmakers got to voting on a final drug possession proposal at the closing hours of the four-month session.
The House failed to pass a bill.
Inslee must now call legislators back to special session to find a solution to this mess.
There’s sure to be a lot of finger-pointing about how a Democrat-controlled House, Senate and Governor’s Office could fail to address this important and foreseeable issue.
Passions run high on both sides — those who want to use potential legal consequences to encourage individuals with substance use disorder into accepting treatment, and those who see any merging of treatment and the criminal justice system as a reboot of the war on drugs — but somewhere in the middle there is wide room for compromise, and lawmakers should quickly find it.
Two years ago, in State v. Blake, the Washington State Supreme Court struck down Washington’s criminal statute prohibiting possession of a controlled substance, which was considered a felony.
After the ruling, Olympia approved a temporary measure making drug possession a misdemeanor on the third occurrence, with police giving treatment options after the first two arrests. Police and others criticized the system as unworkable as they were unable to track who had received treatment and who had not.
Without legislative action, drug possession will be legalized statewide in July. Cities and counties would likely enact their own drug laws.
A patchwork of rules and treatment options across Washington would represent a remarkable failure for state government.
Instead, lawmakers should build on the Senate’s hard work in crafting bipartisan support for a Blake solution. House Democratic leaders, in particular, should recognize the importance of bipartisanship, given their bill failed to garner any Republican votes
Republicans and moderate Democrats say they want to incorporate reasonable technical fixes to the bill offered by the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, as well as provide flexibility for local governments on regulating drug paraphernalia.
Senate Bill 5536, which earned bipartisan support in the Senate, is a good place to start. In fact, on Saturday, Republican House leader J.T. Wilcox emailed House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, and pledged his support: “We have a significant number of votes possible for the version of Blake that was negotiated in the Senate. We would be willing to talk about a way forward tomorrow on that basis (Sunday) if the current effort cannot be executed.”
While there are many details, SB 5536 states: “Law enforcement officers are encouraged to offer any individual arrested for simple possession a referral to assessment, treatment, or other services, such as arrest and jail alternatives and law enforcement assisted diversion programs, in lieu of booking the individual in jail and referring the case for prosecution.”
In the aftermath of a legislative failure, it is easy to assess blame. A better course would be to stress the generally held understanding that people with substance use disorder get better with treatment, not incarceration, and treatment must be readily available. Law enforcement plays a part.
In a special session, lawmakers should strive for common ground, with the keen appreciation that the hardest work for police, courts, treatment providers and those wanting to change their lives still lies ahead.
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