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How the WA Supreme Court drug possession ruling left a ‘void of treatment’

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Nearly two months ago, the Washington state Supreme Court tossed out the state’s law that makes simple drug possession a felony. It shocked the criminal justice system in the state and has left prosecutors scrambling to vacate sentences.

Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Adam Cornell joined Seattle’s Morning News to discuss the case and what comes next.

“As a county prosecutor, when the decision came down, my team and I scrambled to dismiss pending cases, make sure that anybody that was in custody on a simple possession charge was released, and we continue to dismiss cases and try to make sure that we’re compliant with the Supreme Court’s decision in the case,” he said.

“It’s a significant effect on the criminal justice system, as you can imagine.”

It also included drug courts and some of the ability for the criminal justice system to assist people and help them get into treatment.

“In Snohomish County, we had approximately six to eight people in our drug court who were in drug court on just a simple possession charge. There are approximately 80 people in drug court. So it wasn’t a significant hit, but those people who were engaged in treatment and services had to be terminated because we couldn’t keep them under an illegal charge,” Cornell said.

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At the moment, there’s no way for prosecutors to assist anyone dealing with a small, simple possession charge in getting into treatment.

“There isn’t. The Blake decision left a huge vacuum in that area. And so what we are guiding people toward — to the extent that we can — is treatment and services that are out in the community. There aren’t sufficient resources to address this public health threat that is substance use disorder,” he said.

Cornell hopes that more resources are put toward helping to offset the ramifications of the decision.

“The Supreme Court made a legal decision — the last time I checked, they didn’t get to print money — and so the decision didn’t come with any dollars to address the void of treatment. And that’s really what we need. And so I’m really hoping that the Legislature is going to come through and help fund both the provision of having to resentence all these people and handle the extra work as a consequence of Blake,” he said.

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“But I’m also hopeful that the state is going to step up and make sure that we’re providing money to address people’s behavioral health issues and other attendant issues because that’s really what we need to be doing.”

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