Saturday, May 18, 2024

Washington State’s new drug possession law is a positive step forward


Lawmakers successfully developed and approved operating, transportation, and capital budgets for the 2023-2025 biennium. In addition to the budgets, other laws were updated, including a much-needed improvement to the state’s police pursuits statute.

One disappointment during the regular session was the state’s inability to enact a new law to replace its expiring one on drug possession. With that major item not yet completed, Governor Inslee called legislators together for a special session on May 16. A bipartisan compromise was ultimately developed and approved to clarify our state’s drug possession law and provide treatment options. This is a very positive step for our state.

The new law was necessary because in 2021, the State Supreme Court struck down Washington’s felony drug possession statute as unconstitutional. In its ruling, the court determined that individuals could be incarcerated without knowingly possessing drugs. Legislators approved a temporary measure later that year to classify drug possession as a simple misdemeanor while working toward a more comprehensive solution. The temporary measure expires on July 1, so passing a new law soon became one of the highest policy priorities of the year.

During the regular session, I voted for Senate Bill 5536, which achieved bipartisan support in the Senate. Unfortunately, that bill failed to pass the House of Representatives, largely because a key number of progressive Democrats believed it was too strict on drug possession. Ultimately, the drug possession replacement bill approved during the May 16 special session was similar to the prior Senate bill. The final compromise was approved in the Senate by a vote of 43-6 and in the House by a vote of 83-13.

I voted for the compromise measure. An updated law was absolutely necessary because the temporary law was a failure as it sent the completely wrong message about drug possession. This new law establishes drug possession as a gross misdemeanor while also granting people two opportunities for limited jail times and fines. The third penalty could result in nearly a year in jail, which – at that point – seems very reasonable to me as a directive to get healthy.

Key elements of the new law include the opportunities for pre-trial “diversions” for treatment. Drug convictions can be vacated if people successfully complete their programs. The new law and budget also invest millions of dollars in treatment programs and facilities so that people can get the help they need. The law applies uniformly throughout the state as well, avoiding differing local regulations but providing cities and counties some flexibility.

I am very proud of lawmakers for coming together to achieve a bipartisan solution on such an important and complicated issue, one where interesting combinations of Republicans and Democrats found themselves joining forces either voting for or against the various proposals. Some Republicans believed ideas did not punish drug possession enough while some Democrats believed they went too far. In the end, we found a solid compromise.

What is most important is to recognize that people around us are struggling with drugs. They are not only endangering themselves but also destroying their families and creating huge burdens on government. The rise of drug use is correlated to increased homelessness, crime, and other issues, which impact every community. This new law strikes the right balance between extending a helping hand of compassion and a heavier hand of accountability. For the sake of everyone, let’s hope it works.


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