OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — The Washington Legislature on Saturday approved an overhaul of the state's approach to drug possession, after the Washington Supreme Court struck down its previous law as unconstitutional — a ruling that left no prohibition on having small amounts of drugs, even for kids.
The Democratic-led Senate voted on a mostly party line 26-23 vote and concurred with changes made in the House, sending the measure to the desk of the Gov. Jay Inslee.
Senate Republicans decried the changes made in the House, which reclassify possession of controlled substances, including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, from the gross misdemeanor — punishable by up to a year in jail — that previously passed the Senate down to a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail.
The previous law, before being struck down by the court, had made it a felony.
Republican Sen. John Braun emotionally spoke of his nephew, who he said was found dead in a hotel room in another state a few days ago after checking out of rehab.
“He lives in a place where they have no method to use our legal system to get folks and keep folks in treatment,” he said. “This bill in front of us is a path to that, and people will die. People will die because of the path we’re taking.”
But with the legislative session set to end Sunday, there was no time left for the chambers to iron out the differences.
Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, told his colleagues that he understood their frustration but that to reject the bill now would be “a vote for a wild West with no criminal penalty for the possession of drugs in our state."
Many majority Democrats in Olympia saw the dramatic consequences of the Supreme Court ruling as an opportunity to address some of the harm the war on drugs caused, especially to communities of color.
They sought to use it to expand access to addiction treatment and to put the state on a path to drug decriminalization.
“This is a down payment on rebuilding communities,” Democratic Rep. Jamila Taylor said.
“We know the war on drugs is a failed policy. We know we have better options.”
In addition to changing the classification, under the bill that passed the House on a bipartisan 80-18 vote earlier Saturday, police would divert a defendant’s first two offenses to treatment before the case even made it to a prosecutor, and if a defendant's case ever reached a prosecutor, the prosecutor would be able to divert as well.
“It’s a major step in the right direction to go as far upstream as possible to have a therapeutic intervention rather than a punitive intervention,” Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, who has long advocated for decriminalizing and regulating drugs, said earlier this week.
Under an amendment adopted on the House floor Saturday, the provisions making drug possession a misdemeanor would expire in two years — reverting to current law, with no prohibition on drug possession.
That should provide a powerful incentive for lawmakers to re-evaluate how the state's new policies are working and figure out a long-term strategy for drug policy, Goodman said.
Oregon this year became the only other state to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of all types of drugs, increasing access to treatment instead. Washington's measure likewise aims to greatly expand treatment services and outreach, including to homeless people with severe behavioral health issues.
Regional “recovery navigator” teams, similar to the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program developed in Seattle and now operating in several counties, would be set up to help provide “continual, rapid, and widespread access to a comprehensive continuum of care” to “all persons with substance abuse disorder.”
The bill would provide $45 million from the state budget toward such work, under an amendment adopted on the floor.
Making such drastic drug-policy changes on the fly gave many lawmakers pause. The court's ruling came down in February, well into the legislative session.
Such complex legislation usually might take a year to draft, with many public hearings and negotiations among stakeholders. But failing to act meant drug possession would continue to be legal under state law even for children.
The version approved by the House on Saturday made significant changes to a bill already approved by the Senate.
Some House Republicans said they did not believe drug possession should be a felony, but they were concerned by how quickly lawmakers were moving to overhaul the decades-long prohibition of drugs, by uncertainty over what the measure would cost, and by what some called the “false promise” of treatment when such services are hard to come by in rural areas.
They also argued that the prospect of jail time could be a powerful incentive for people to turn around their lives.
“Sometimes jail is the solution that saves the life of an addict in a self-destructive spiral,” Republican Rep. Jim Walsh said. “We need all these options.”
Many Democrats dispute that argument, saying jail time is harmful for people suffering from addiction and that people of color are disproportionately arrested for drug crimes.
The chamber rejected amendments that sought to reclassify the charge to a gross misdemeanor, and that would have removed the expiration date on the criminal penalties.
The Supreme Court’s decision came in the case of Shannon Blake, a Spokane woman who had received a pair of jeans from a friend that had a small bag of methamphetamine in a pocket.
A 5-4 majority said the state's drug possession law was unconstitutional because it did not require prosecutors to prove that a defendant knowingly possessed drugs.
Among those who could be convicted was a letter carrier who unwittingly delivers a package of drugs or someone who picks up the wrong bag at an airport, the majority noted.