By Paul Kiefer
After a last-minute rush to pass legislation in response to the Washington State Supreme Court’s decision in February that rendered the existing drug possession laws void, the Washington State legislature passed new legislation on Saturday re-criminalizing low-level drug possession by making it a misdemeanor and requiring local jurisdictions to provide treatment options for drug users. The bill, ESB 5476, directs law enforcement officers to divert people who violate the new law to “assessment, treatment, or other services” for the first two violations; after the second violation, a violator can be referred for prosecution and, potentially, a fine or jail.
After making compromises to pass the bill before the final day of the legislative session on Sunday, many lawmakers are not fully satisfied with the result. But had the legislature not passed a new law regulating drug possession, some lawmakers worried that a patchwork of local policies and enforcement practices would have filled the vacuum.
The decision that precipitated the scramble to adjust Washington’s drug possession laws, called State of Washington v. Blake, ruled that Washington’s so-called “strict liability” drug possession laws—which made no distinction between intentional and unintentional drug possession—violated the due process rights enshrined in both the state and federal constitutions.
Without new legislation to address the court’s decision, the state can’t enforce any of its existing drug possession laws. But local jurisdictions could have passed new laws if the state legislature had not acted, which could range from de-criminalizing drug possession to classifying intentional possession as a gross misdemeanor—the most severe criminal charge a local jurisdiction can impose.
The bill at the center of the legislature’s ongoing push to respond to the Blake decision began as the work of a group of Democratic senators led by Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Bellevue), who proposed that the state eliminate all criminal penalties for possessing a “personal use amount” of an illegal drug—up to one gram of heroin or two grams of methamphetamine, for example. In its original form, the bill also proposed a system in which law enforcement could pass the names and contact information of drug users to a “care coordinator,” who would then reach out to the drug user to offer treatment and recovery resources.
But in an effort to pass the bill out of the senate, Democratic lawmakers moved to re-criminalize drug possession to win the votes of some Republicans; when the bill came to a vote on the senate floor, Dhingra voted against it, arguing that it no longer reflected her goal of separating addiction treatment from the criminal justice system. Continue reading “In Last-Minute Move, Legislature Adopts New Approach to Drug Possession”