The Washington Supreme Court has pushed the state Legislature this year to create a permanent law governing the possession of controlled substances.
The Supreme Court’s 2021 Washington state v. Blake ruling struck down the statute that made possession of controlled substances a class C felony. That forced the Legislature to quickly come up with a stopgap law in 2021 that made knowingly possessing controlled substances a misdemeanor rather than a Class C felony. But before a person can be charged, under the new law, they first must be referred to treatment twice.
That move greatly loosened any legal enforcement over drug possession. The current law needs to be reworked to offer a carrot and a stick in addressing the state’s illicit drug use problem.
This legislative session, two bills propose to change the current law, along with a Republican proposal from late last year that essentially reinstates the law the Supreme Court found unconstitutional.
State Sens. Jesse Salomon and June Robinson, both Democrats, offer similar bills. While both acknowledge the need for drug treatment, Salomon’s Senate Bill 5467 makes more sense in its application.
Both bills would make possession a gross misdemeanor. Under Salomon’s bill, if a person completes the substance-use treatment prior to their conviction being entered, the court would be required to dismiss the charge. An evaluator trained in clinical substance treatment would recommend the type and length of treatment, not a judge.
Also under SB 5467, if no treatment accommodations or funding are available, the defendant would not be sent to jail but be allowed to wait for openings to occur.
In response to the Blake decision, the Legislature has funded treatment and treatment-related programs to the tune of $78 million.
The biggest difference between Salomon’s and Robinson’s bills is the discretion given to law enforcement and judges.
Under Robinson’s bill, officers are “encouraged” to offer a diversion program when they encounter a person they suspect of violating possession laws, but before an arrest is made. Under Salomon’s, if a suspect is arrested and pleads guilty, a judge would sentence them to undergo substance abuse treatment.
Should defendants refuse, they would then be sentenced to a minimum of 45 days in jail. If they agree and complete a treatment program, the judge would vacate the conviction.
Both proposals center treatment over incarceration, and neither goes as far as Oregon has gone to essentially decriminalize hard drugs.
Such a move would be shortsighted as we fight a losing battle against opioids, and would elevate personal choices at the expense of communities and families.
Salomon’s bill is the best approach and best chance for steering people to needed treatment.
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