Special legislative session for drug possession set for Tuesday

May 15, 2023, 8:01 AM | Updated: 10:11 am

drug possession laws...

FILE - Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks before signing multiple bills meant to prevent gun violence, Tuesday, April 25, 2023, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. On Monday, May 1, 2023, Inslee announced he does not plan to seek a fourth term. He was most recently re-elected in 2020, making him only the second Washington state governor to serve three consecutive terms. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

(AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson, File)

After the Washington state Legislature failed to pass drug possession legislation, Governor Jay Inslee has called them back into the office for a special legislative session set to start Tuesday.

Gov. Inslee announced May 3 that he would be calling a special session, with the focus on passing a new drug possession law. Inslee set the date after conversations with Democratic and Republican legislative leaders.

Inslee: ‘There’s cause for optimism’ in a special session to pass a new drug law

“My office and I have been meeting with legislators from all four caucuses, and I am very optimistic about reaching an agreement that can pass both chambers,” Inslee said in the announcement. “Cities and counties are eager to see a statewide policy that balances accountability and treatment, and I believe we can produce a bipartisan bill that does just that. Details are still being negotiated, but caucus leaders share the desire to pass a bill. I believe that starting the clock on May 16 will put us on a path to getting the job done this month.”

Senate Bill 5536 was introduced this year in order 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.

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.

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.

Since the bill did not pass before the end of the legislative session, no drug possession laws will exist statewide, and cities and counties have been creating their own drug possession laws with varying penalties and treatment options.

In an interview on Seattle’s Morning News recently, Inslee said the patchwork system of different laws in different jurisdictions would just be confusing and frustrating for lawmakers, police, and citizens, and he wanted to address the issue before the current laws expired.

“People thought that there was a route to a majority, and it turned out there was not. I think this is going to end up to be a bipartisan effort. I think both Democrats and Republicans will ultimately help in passing a version of this,” Inslee said. “And again, I want to get this done as soon as possible so that cities don’t have to adopt their own unique approach. And we have a scattershot approach across the state. So I do want to get this done in May.”

Democratic Washington Gov. Jay Inslee won’t seek 4th term

House Republican Leader Drew Stokesbary said that the party remains committed to passing statewide drug possession legislation but will not sacrifice their party’s values in a compromise.

“House Republicans remain committed to passing statewide legislation that provides opportunities for those who are willing to undergo treatment and accountability for those who aren’t. However, we will not support a bill that falls short of either of these goals and simultaneously prevents local governments from enacting their own solutions,” Stokesbary said in a statement. “Since the regular session adjourned, House Republican leaders have remained engaged in substantive, bipartisan, and bicameral conversations regarding how to incorporate our caucus’ priorities into new legislation that could be passed during a special session.”

The Legislature has earmarked more than $600 million in new state funding for myriad behavioral health services, including additional treatment facilities and services for people with substance use disorders.

The special session is set to last 30 days, but Inslee said that the faster legislators come to an agreed-upon bill, they can finish in a matter of days and adjourn the session again.

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Special legislative session for drug possession set for Tuesday