By Andrew Engelson
Over the weekend, the legislative debate over the state’s new drug possession law took a surprising turn, as 15 house Democrats voted against—and helped defeat—a compromise bill that would have made possession of drugs such as fentanyl, meth, and cocaine a gross misdemeanor, which can result in up to 364 days in jail.
The legislature was forced to deal with the issue of drug possession because of the 2021 state supreme court ruling Washington State v. Blake, which tossed out the state’s existing law on narrow legal grounds. A temporary law passed in 2021 expires on July 1, and Democrats have been scuffling all session over how to replace it, swerving between a public health/harm reduction approach and a more punitive bill focused on prison time and coercive treatment.
Earlier in the session, house Democrats had passed a bill that made drug possession a simple misdemeanor and focused on treatment and diversion. The more punitive senate bill proposed pushing people arrested for possession into treatment and sending those who drop out of treatment back to jail.
Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-23, Bremerton) who served time in prison for a drug possession conviction and who advocated for a less punitive version of the bill, was among the Democrats who voted against the senate compromise.
“Putting people in a cold concrete cell room and shaming them is not how you get people to change their behavior.”—Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-23, Bremerton)
“At the end of the day, we have to do no harm,” Simmons said, noting that making the penalty for drug possession a gross misdemeanor allows for a maximum sentence of almost a year in prison, making the law even more strict than the previous felony possession law. “I would have hoped the Democrats in the Senate could have conferenced a more compassionate and humane bill.”
“Putting people in a cold concrete cell room and shaming them is not how you get people to change their behavior,” she said.
Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Redmond), who helped craft the final, compromise version of the bill, had hoped a handful of House Republicans would vote for the final bill. In the end, none of them did. “It was bipartisan in the senate because that’s what we needed,” Dhingra said of the senate version, which passed with the support of 14 Democrats and 14 Republicans. “We needed our Republican colleagues to work with us towards that solution. And in the house, [Democrats] had 43 votes and none of the Republicans showed up to vote for it.”
During a press conference on Sunday, Gov. Jay Inslee hinted that he might call a special session before the temporary law expires on July 1, to avoid effectively decriminalizing drug possession in the state. “We need to hammer out a bill that could pass and that needs to happen before July 1,” Inslee said. He pointed fingers at House Republicans for failing to vote for the senate bill. “We expect the Washington state legislature to produce a bill that will not decriminalize drugs, will provide measures for treatment and will provide some sanction for those who fail to accept treatment,” he said.
But considering Democrats hold the governor’s mansion and substantial majorities in both houses of the legislature, the failure to come to a compromise rests on their shoulders.
In a press release, Rep. Peter Abbarno (R-20, Centralia) took a harsh line on drug possession, saying, “Senate Bill 5536 took the very policies that have failed to address substance abuse on the local level and would have expanded those failed policies statewide. It would have led to more substance abuse, more homelessness, more preventable tragedies, and less local control. If the majority party were serious about addressing this crisis, they would work with us, on a bipartisan basis, and pass legislation that effectively helps people recover from addiction.”
Minority leader Drew Stokesbary (R-31, Auburn) and Rep. Roger Goodman (D-45, Kirkland), who was involved in crafting the final house version of the bill, did not respond to requests for comment.
If the legislature doesn’t reconvene and pass a bill by July 1, the state will be without a drug possession law and drugs such as opioids, meth, and cocaine will no longer be criminalized at the state level. That could leave Washington with a patchwork of varying laws as local jurisdictions pass their own ordinances.
“I recognize that substance use disorder is a medical issue and treatment services are necessary. However, without proper support and encouragement, a person with a substance use disorder cannot be expected to make the decision to stop using.”—Kent Mayor Dana Ralph
Without missing a beat, Kent Mayor Dana Ralph announced on Monday that she plans to propose legislation to the Kent City Council making drug possession a gross misdemeanor. In a press release, Ralph made arguments for coercive treatment, going so far as to suggest people with substance use disorder don’t have the capacity or agency to decide for themselves if they want to enter recovery.
“I recognize that substance use disorder is a medical issue and treatment services are necessary,” Ralph said. “However, without proper support and encouragement, a person with a substance use disorder cannot be expected to make the decision to stop using.”
The mayor of another south King County city, Des Moines, said he would propose a bill criminalizing drug possession, banning the use of illegal drugs in public places, and “making it a crime… to be in possession of drug paraphernalia.” This would criminalize possession of needles and pipes legally obtained from harm-reduction programs such as needle exchanges, and potentially items like the lighters and foil that are used to vaporize fentanyl.
In 2018, King and Snohomish counties stopped prosecuting anyone caught with less than one gram of drugs, and turned instead to programs such as LEAD, which focuses on pre-arrest diversion to social services, treatment, housing, and behavioral health services. “Places like the city of Seattle,” Simmons said, “will continue to treat people humanely and offer harm reduction.”
Last week, Mayor Bruce Harrell unveiled a Downtown Activation Plan that focuses, in part, on the fentanyl crisis. Along with a vaguely described commitment to “arrest and hold accountable narcotics traffickers,” the plan includes a short menu of harm reduction efforts including expansion of the Seattle Fire Department’s overdose response unit, increasing availability of drug overdose medications such as naloxone, and a pilot “contingency management,” program that will give low-value rewards to people with substance use disorders who abstain from their drug of choice.
Simmons hopes the legislature will return in a special session or next year and pass a bill that limits penalties for possession and funds treatment, housing, and behavioral health services. “My life and my family were impacted for the worse because I was incarcerated,” she said. “This loss is hard. It’s very personal for me.”