The state Supreme Court delivered a drug-decriminalizing jolt to the state’s legal system in February, upending years of sentencing decisions and essentially legalizing possession of hard drugs. Before the Legislature adjourns Sunday, lawmakers should embrace a bipartisan compromise that reasonably restricts drug possession and steers users toward treatment, not incarceration.
As the State v. Blake ruling to strike down the drug possession statute reverberates in courthouses around the state, opinions are sharply divided on the path forward. Lawmakers on the right call for remobilizing law enforcement to address the immense toll addiction takes on victims and the state. Legislators on the left, joined this week by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, cite the immense racial inequities wrought by decades of drug-war prosecutions.
But legislative action is necessary. The ruling legalized possession of hard drugs across the board, even for children and in public spaces. Lewis County and Marysville quickly enacted new local restrictions. Elsewhere, long-established practices loosened. Seattle Police announced they had stopped confiscating drugs. Spokane County deputies quit destroying drugs taken as contraband.
Debate over Senate Bill 5476 revealed how deeply the fault lines lay over whether to legalize or re-criminalize personal use of cocaine, heroin and LSD. The bipartisan coalition that passed a compromise version with 14 votes from each party showed the reasonable way forward: a path to treatment that also can penalize repeat offenders.
It would make a person’s knowingly possessing drugs a gross misdemeanor, which can carry 364 days in jail. Treatment, not prosecution, would apply for the first two offenses. The old law made any possession a felony.
In the House, a committee made improvements by reducing the offense to a standard misdemeanor and put diversion to treatment in police hands, which is a reasonable modification. A misdemeanor comes with a potential 90 days of jail time, which is still a meaningful penalty for repeated offenses. While the Senate’s penalty of gross misdemeanor had a maximum sentence that exceeded the six-month term many felon possession offenders faced under the old law.
Allowing police to confiscate drugs and send users to treatment reduces courthouse burdens and pointless jail bookings for people who need help. It’s also already proven. Seattle launched its Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program in 2011, and King County and jurisdictions nationwide have adopted their own versions.
“We’re not really inventing anything new,” said House public safety chair Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland. “We’re just expanding what we know has worked.”
But the House still must ensure SB 5476 can be effective. Goodman said treatment resources needed will come from state and federal funding. This must be locked in to ensure authorities aren’t simply seizing drugs without a place to send people. Amendments also attached a sunset clause: in two years, drug laws go away. The intent, Goodman said, is to force the Legislature to act in 2023. Deadlines can be powerful motivators. But the default if lawmakers reach an impasse ought not be that anything goes again.
SB 5476 is almost ready for passage. The Legislature should act.