Lawmakers express ‘disappointment’ with lack of WA drug possession law

Apr 24, 2023, 3:45 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)

Republicans and Democrats alike on both the state and local levels are expressing “disappointment” and “frustration” over the Legislature not passing a new drug use and possession law.

Snohomish County Councilmember Nate Nehring (R-District 1) told the Jason Rantz Show on AM 770 KTTH he was “disappointed to see that the Legislature failed to take action on… meaningful Blake reform.” But explained, “It does leave us with an opportunity at the local level as counties and cities to address this issue ourselves.”

“Blake reform” refers to a 2021 case, State v. Blake. In it, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled the state’s felony drug possession statute was unconstitutional. By invalidating the statute, the possession of hard drugs – like fentanyl, methamphetamines, and heroin – became legal in Washington state.

Senator Mark Mullet (D-Issaquah) called it “a frustrating week” in Olympia. “We kept saying all week, the entire week, to the House Democrats, you need a bipartisan bill. And we handed them language, which was a bipartisan bill.”

Local laws will have to be enacted

Talking with Rantz on Monday, Nehring and Mullet said local laws will now have to be enacted to deal with public consumption as well as the possession of drugs like heroin, meth, fentanyl, and others.

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

“From my perspective, we had a bipartisan bill, and it had the votes to pass. And for whatever reason, they insisted on running what was very much a party-line bill,” Mullet said. “I can’t explain why that happened. It was just frustrating.”

Nehring said it is now up to localities to consider new laws and conversations will have to look into treatment options, whether diversion programs are offered, and how those will be funded.

“There’s a lot to be worked out,” said Nehring. “But I think the main point is, what we’ll be limited to at the local level is a gross misdemeanor, which is what Republicans were advocating for this session. And what some Democrats agreed to under the Senate Bill.”

Mullet expressed confusion with House Democrats who were hesitant to include certain language in the final bill.

“It’s not just about the gross misdemeanor that was obviously in the bill. It’s about a gross misdemeanor, where you don’t have a bunch of things in there that make it next to impossible to actually prosecute people who are using drugs in public,” Mullet explained. “And that was the stuff we were trying to clean up. And that was the stuff, for whatever reason, the House Democrats were very hesitant to include in the final bill.”

Mullet gave credit to his Republican counterparts for offering reasonable solutions to the proposal.

“You always knew there were going to be Democrats in Seattle, whose preference is to not have any criminal penalties in the drug possession space,” Mullet said. “And that’s where the clear path all along was. Republicans have been very reasonable on this issue. There are a lot of really thoughtful, not crazy suggestions that could have passed the bill, and for whatever reason, the House chose not to take [them].

“I just felt like the suggestions that were coming forward from the prosecutors in the cities this weekend were not crazy. They seemed super logical to me,” Mullet explained. “And so the fact that there was hesitancy to adopt those, to me, just indicates it was like a Hail Mary attempt.”

A partnership may help to move the issue forward more quickly

Nehring feels cities and counties will have to adjust laws on a case-by-case basis.

“As soon as we have a model out there, it will spread pretty quickly,” Nehring explained.

Rantz asked Nehring if he foresees a giant partnership between the cities and the county at this point.

Nehring explained he’s not sure if it will be every city, but “especially the mayors and business leadership of the Public Safety Group, which was advocating in Olympia for a meaningful fix on this.”

Nehring said cities like Everett, Marysville, and Lake Stevens have shown that “this is an issue they care about.”

“I think the county and several cities will be taking some similar action and hopefully working together so that the language is is fairly similar.”

Rantz said it seems the general consensus amongst Democrats and Republicans is that drug addicts should go into treatment, but if they refuse, they’ll have to go to jail.

“If we have a pathway that takes the carrot and stick approach and says, ‘If you are abusing these drugs, you have the option to take treatment as a diversion pathway, or you have to go into jail,’ the only way to really offer that true option is to be on a funded treatment program. And so it creates a huge problem if there’s a funding gap there,” explained Rantz.

State toxicology labs complicate the issue

Nehring said the other concern is that the state toxicology labs are backed up for several months. The state needs results to prosecute. “I’m not quite sure what to expect,” he said.

Nehring explained that if you look at trends across the state, “you’re gonna see some opposition. But in my mind, it’s pretty hard to argue that fentanyl, which is causing record overdose deaths on our streets and in King County, that [the state] should just let it become legal on July 1. And so I think it’s a tough argument to make.”

Nehring believes that there be some productive conversations ahead regarding “how to craft the best language to help these people get their lives turned around.”

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3 – 7 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Lawmakers express ‘disappointment’ with lack of WA drug possession law