SU law professor: State was ‘actually an outlier’ before court ruling on drug possession

Feb 26, 2021, 1:39 PM
Drug possession...
(Associated Press, file photo)
(Associated Press, file photo)

A shocking decision from the Supreme Court of Washington threw the state’s drug laws into flux Thursday, with cities like Seattle announcing they’d be ceasing arrests for simple possession. As for the longer term implications, Seattle University professor Deborah Ahrens spoke to KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show to provide some insight.

SPD will no longer make arrests for drug possession

The court’s ruling sought to end the arrest of people who are unknowingly in possession of illicit drugs, including a 2016 instance where Spokane woman Shannon Blake was arrested in connection with three stolen vehicles. After being booked into jail, a corrections officer found a small bag of methamphetamine in the coin pocket of her jeans.

Blake was charged with possession of a controlled substance, despite claiming that she had been sold the jeans secondhand from a friend, had never previously used methamphetamine, and that the baggy was left in the pocket of the jeans without her knowledge prior to buying them.

Thanks to Thursday’s ruling, Washington’s existing statute regarding simple drug possession is null and void, with lawmakers now scrambling to figure out how to update the state’s laws accordingly.

But as Ahrens points out, Washington’s rules regarding the intent behind simple possession — or rather, lack there of — had been inconsistent with the rest of the nation’s prior to the state Supreme Court’s decision.

“Every other state either has written into its statute or its state courts have determined [there’s needs to be] some sort of intention the individual has to have to possess the drugs, that they would have to know that they have it, and that they would have to intend to possess it. And so we were actually an outlier,” she noted.

“We’re the only state that actually did hold people strictly liable for any drugs that were in their possession, so even if you had no idea you had a drug on your person or in a backpack that someone had handed to you, we were the last state where that could still get you convicted of a drug felony,” she added.

Given that local law enforcement won’t be making arrests for simple possession while state lawmakers get a new, more explicit law on the books, does the court’s ruling amount to a de facto legalization of drugs? Not exactly, Ahrens says.

WA Rep explains deeper goal behind bill to decriminalize drugs

“The state Supreme Court was pretty clear in the decision that we do have statutes that penalize distribution or possession with intent to distribute or trafficking drugs,” she described. “And those statutes already do require the person to have a mental state with respect to the drugs, so there are still ways to arrest and prosecute people for larger quantities of illicit substances where you really do think that they are selling or trafficking.”

In the meantime, state Senators Mark Mullet and Steve Hobbs have already introduced legislation to update Washington’s statutes to make it a felony to knowingly possess small quantities of drugs, a distinction the previous law did not draw.

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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SU law professor: State was ‘actually an outlier’ before court ruling on drug possession