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Controversial WA drug possession bill fails, laws could be made locally

Apr 24, 2023, 8:00 AM | Updated: 9:41 am

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The Washington Capitol Building in Olympia (Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

(Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

The Washington state Legislature failed to pass a remedy to the state’s drug possession law after the House rejected a bill that would have made the possession and use of hard drugs a gross misdemeanor.

Senate Bill 5536 was introduced to radically change drug possession laws after the Washington state Supreme Court struck down the drug possession law in 2021. 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.

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The current state law, which was passed as a stopgap after the Blake decision, expires in July and classifies drug possession as a misdemeanor on the third arrest. There is a maximum sentence of 90 days in jail, up to $1,000 in fines, or both after a third arrest.

Washington lawmakers reached a compromise on a replacement drug possession law on Saturday.

The negotiated agreement could increase the penalty for drug possession — but also divert drug users to substance abuse treatment. Under the compromise Senate bill, Washington would raise the penalty for possession of a controlled substance to a gross misdemeanor.

The House’s amendments to the bill, SB 5536, would make drug possession a misdemeanor instead of a gross misdemeanor. A gross misdemeanor carries a sentence of up to 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine, while the maximum sentence for a misdemeanor is only 90 days in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.

Governor Jay Inslee had previously expressed hope for the Legislature to come to a compromise.

“Ultimately, treatment is what really works with people. But they also preserved a criminal sanction to make sure people understand they have to go into treatment or there is jail time,” Inslee said.

A mix of Democrats and nearly all Republicans rejected the last-minute compromise.

Republican Rep. Jacqueline Maycumber (WA-7) said the reason she rejected the bill was that the state was not taking the problem of drug use, overdose, and corresponding issues like mental health crises and homelessness seriously, leaving her constituents out to dry.

“And then to tell local governments, maybe we will come in with safe injection sites, maybe we will come in with paraphernalia exchanges,” Maycumber said. “The people in my district are asking for help, and we are telling them, ‘We know better than you.'”

Democrat Rep. Monica Stonier (WA-49) warned that the failure to reach a compromise and pass a drug possession bill will make many of the problems worse.

“The failure of this bill would mean that drugs would be legalized across the state and everything that comes with substance use disorder, defecation on the streets, needles in our parks, all of the things that we have heard about that we fear, will be worse,” Stonier said.

Since the bill did not pass before the end of the legislative session, no drug possession laws will exist statewide, and it will be up to cities and counties to create their own drug possession laws with varying penalties and treatment options.

Governor Inslee can call lawmakers back to work with a special session, but there has been no indication whether or not that will happen.

Expect local governments to start passing their own emergency laws starting this week.

Matt Markovich contributed to this report

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Controversial WA drug possession bill fails, laws could be made locally