Washington state will decriminalize drugs unless lawmakers act

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is asking lawmakers to get back to work after they rejected a bill establishing a new statewide drug policy, a development that has brought the state to the brink of decriminalizing possession. of fentanyl and other drugs, while depriving it of much-needed investment in public health.

Lawmakers adjourned their regular session late last month after rejecting a bill that would keep drug possession illegal and increase services for people struggling with addiction. Many liberal Democrats opposed criminalizing drugs, while conservative Democrats and Republicans insisted that it should be done to encourage people to enter treatment.

Inslee called that unacceptable, and on Tuesday set a special legislative session for May 16 to give them another chance.

“Cities and counties are eager to see state policy that balances accountability and treatment, and I believe we can produce a bipartisan bill that does just that,” Inslee said.

A temporary law making possession of small amounts of drugs a misdemeanor expires July 1, so if lawmakers don’t pass a bill, Washington would become the second state, after neighboring Oregon, to decriminalize drug possession. Cities and counties would be free to take their own approaches to drug and paraphernalia possession, creating a patchwork of laws that could undermine efforts to treat addiction as a public health problem.

Lawmakers said Tuesday they were increasingly optimistic they can reach a compromise to avoid those consequences.

“I have cleared my schedule,” said state Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland. “I’m working day and night on this.”

Like other states, Washington has debated what to do about an overdose crisis made worse by the widespread availability of cheap and deadly fentanyl. Public drug use is rampant in cities across the state, and deaths have skyrocketed.

Several Washington cities have already contemplated or passed new drug laws in the absence of legislative action. Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison and two City Council members, Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen, have proposed banning public use.

“Our hands-off approach to people using illegal drugs in public has resulted in rampant street crime and a death toll that rivals that of COVID-19 in Seattle,” Nelson said in a statement. “Complacency is no longer an option.”

The Washington Supreme Court in 2021 struck down the state law that made drug possession a felony. The court said it was unconstitutional because it did not require prosecutors to prove someone knowingly had the drugs. Washington was the only state in the country without that requirement.

In response, lawmakers that year made intentional drug possession a misdemeanor and required police to refer offenders for evaluation or treatment for their first two offenses, but there was no obvious way for officers to track how many times someone had been referred and the availability of treatment. it was still inappropriate.

Lawmakers made the measure temporary (expiring July 1, 2023) to give themselves two years to devise long-term policy.

But with this year’s session ending late last month, a measure billed as a compromise was defeated in the 55-43 Democratic-controlled House. It would have increased the potential penalties for drug possession, making it a serious misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail, instead of a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days.

It would also have removed the requirement that police refer a person’s first two offenses for treatment instead of prosecution, allowing officers to arrest someone for a first offense if they deem it appropriate, while encouraging police and prosecutors to divert cases. Judges could impose prison terms on people who refuse treatment or who repeatedly fail to comply.

It would have made it clear that public health workers could not be prosecuted for handing out drug paraphernalia, such as clean glass pipes for smoking fentanyl.

And it would have included funds for drug crisis centers; a pilot program for health engagement centers where users could access clean drug paraphernalia and connect with other services; and expanded access to withdrawal medications in jails and prisons.

Without those provisions of the bill passing, the state’s approach to drugs amounts to “a complete diversion system with nothing to divert people to,” said Caleb Banta-Green, a research professor at the School of Medicine. from the University of Washington.

“We need $50 million to $100 million statewide and a health engagement center in every county, and we could cut deaths in half in a year,” he said. “We know what to do.”

Democratic and Republican lawmakers agree on the need to increase services, and many say they have no intention of returning to the punitive approach to the war on drugs.

But Republicans objected that the bill did not do enough to ensure accountability for violators; it would preempt local bans on drug paraphernalia; and create recovery homes where those trying to stay sober could stay with those who continue to use drugs.

“I want these people to get better,” said Rep. Greg Cheney, R-Battle Ground, an attorney with experience in drug courts, during a debate last month. “But not requiring them to acknowledge that they have a problem is not the right way to go.”

Meanwhile, many Liberal Democrats said they were opposed to making drug possession a crime. Rep. Tarra Simmons of Bremerton, who served time in prison on drug charges before becoming a lawyer and lawmaker, said she was willing to vote to make it a misdemeanor as part of a compromise that would increase services.

But a serious misdemeanor is actually worse than its old status as a felony, he suggested, because the felony came with a sentencing recommendation of zero to six months for the first three offenses; serious misdemeanor is up to one year in jail. Municipal court judges across the state could continue to punish those struggling with addiction, he said.

“It was really hard for me not to vote for all the good things in that bill,” Simmons said. “But we don’t need to cause people more pain to help them.”

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