WA Legislature passes drug law with modified gross misdemeanor

May 16, 2023, 11:34 AM | Updated: 4:37 pm

drug possession...

(Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

(Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

Update: 5 p.m.:

Gov. Jay Inslee has signed the special session’s bill defining drug possession in Washington state as a gross misdemeanor.

Update 3 p.m.:

The bill passed in the House on an 83-13 vote during the Legislature’s special session, as a mix of Democrats and Republicans voted both for and against the bill. The bill now will be on Governor Jay Inslee’s desk to be signed into law. If signed, the bill will take effect on July 1.

Update 11:30 a.m.:

The modified bill passed the Senate in the special session with a vote of 43-6. It will now head to the House to be voted on. If the bill is not changed in the House and passes, it would go to Governor Jay Inslee’s desk to be signed into law.


Details indicate a new drug possession law in Washington state will include a modified gross misdemeanor as a penalty with a maximum of 180 days to 364 days in jail, depending on the circumstances.

The information comes from a document currently being circulated among state lawmakers as they prepare to begin a special in-person session in Olympia tomorrow.

The document compares the original SB 5536 from the Senate, the House version (H1919.E), and the version from a Conference Committee (H1994.4) the House failed to pass during the last day of the regular session.

Special legislative session for drug possession set for Tuesday

A Special Session Striker is being presented to lawmakers as a replacement for all those bills.

That striker bill calls for the “Knowing Possession of Counterfeit or Controlled Substances and knowing Use in a Public Place are gross misdemeanor crimes punishable by up to 180 days in jail and/or a $1,000 fine, unless the defendant has at least two prior convictions for these crimes after July 1, 2023, in which case the potential confinement increases to up to 364 days in jail.”

It also “does not prohibit cities and counties from enacting laws and ordinances related to the establishment or regulation of harm reduction services related to drug paraphernalia,” the comparison document read.

Local regulation of drug paraphernalia became a key issue for lawmakers who did not want the state to require needle exchanges and addict support items in areas where local authorities did not want them.

Courts may not grant pretrial diversion unless the prosecutor consents to include a new addition in the proposed fix.

City of Kent creates legislation roadmap with drug possession ordinance

It also requires the Department of Health to provide public notice in “all appropriate media outlets in the community” when an opioid treatment program is being proposed for a location.

The striking bill additionally sets out $9 million in appropriations for the Office of Public Defense in order to pay for legal services to those charged with possession or public drug use.

The proposed striking bill adds $17 million in additional funding to pay for some of the new changes in the bill, bringing the total spending on the bill to over $62 million.

“There have now been more than 524 overdose deaths in King County this year, most of them due to fentanyl,” KIRO Newsradio Heather Bosch reported. “It’s so addictive that most versions of a new drug possession law state legislators are considering would offer treatment for opioid use disorder and jail time for those who refuse it.”

The state’s current drug possession law is set to expire at the end of June while several cities and counties have passed their own drug ordinances in case the state fails to pass its own law.

As legislators debate a new drug possession law in a Special Legislative session, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs announced that they thought the new law was an improvement but could do more.

Currently, the Senate is debating a replacement that makes illegal drug possession a ‘modified’ gross misdemeanor – with a maximum penalty of 6 months in jail for the first two offenses and a year for every offense after that.

James McMahan, the Policy Director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC), released a statement highlighting the positive changes to the legislation but also what they see as shortcomings that the bill is still facing.

The highlight of the new Bill, according to the WASPC, is that it makes drug possession a gross misdemeanor, but take issue with various parts of the bill, including that the bill will void local ordinances on drug paraphernalia and weak requirement on individuals completing behavioral treatment to avoid criminal charges.

“We appreciate your consideration of our feedback. Thank you for your diligent work on this important issue, and Washington’s law enforcement looks forward to continuing to work to provide improved public safety,” McMahan said.

The anticipation is that lawmakers can reach an agreement this afternoon and pass a compromise.

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WA Legislature passes drug law with modified gross misdemeanor