State Legislature battles over criminalizing drug possession

Apr 12, 2023, 3:28 PM


A homeless man, 24, holds a piece of aluminum foil he used to smoke fentanyl in Seattle. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Fixes to the state Supreme Court’s Blake Decision have led to passionate debate in Olympia, as the discourse over penalties for drug possession is far from over.

A very early morning vote Wednesday in the state’s House of Representatives made possession a simple misdemeanor with a maximum of 90 days in jail. The amendment passed on a deeply contested 54-41 vote.

Tax relief, drug possession among topics debated with WA Legislature back in session

“If there are any pathways for them to fall through the cracks Madam Speaker, I fear that this policy is going to be another broken promise,” House Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber (D-7) said on the Legislature floor. “There’s going to be cracks in this policy where they’re going to be lost.”

Maycumber opposed the changes made to the Senate bill, believing simple possession of drugs should be a gross misdemeanor — resulting in one year of jail time.

However, House lawmakers instead voted to make it a simple misdemeanor, with the amendment also changing the requirements for referring people to treatment.

“I’m quite apprehensive at the prospect of criminalizing the most marginalized people in our society,” said Representative Roger Goodman (D-45) in defense of the legislative changes.

The measure is currently back in the Senate for further debate.

In 2021, Washington state’s Supreme Court struck down Washington’s law, through the State v. Blake case, that made simple drug possession a felony. The court ruled the law unconstitutional because it did not require proof to charge people with drugs in their possession, including charges against people who were unknowingly possessing illegal substances.

Federal Way mayor in full support of bills re-criminalizing drug possession

In response, the Legislature established a simple misdemeanor penalty for knowing possession that same year. It is set to expire July 1.

Many people have come out in opposition to the State v. Blake decision, including the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC), which released a statement earlier this year about what the Legislature should prioritize in 2023.

“The effects of the Washington Supreme Court Blake decision and legislative changes to our drug laws tolerated personal drug possession and made harmful and dangerous drugs essentially legal to possess across the state,” their statement read. “The legislative response to the Blake decision has made it far easier for those who sell drugs to prey on victims and has brought chaos to public spaces. Drug-related crime, such as retail theft, has increased greatly.”

Working in tandem with drug possession legislation was the House’s decision to pass an amended version of the state Senate’s police pursuit bill — allowing pursuits if an officer has “reasonable suspicion” rather than “probable cause.”

Police pursuit bill passes House despite some reluctance

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State Legislature battles over criminalizing drug possession