1. One of the biggest conflicts in this year’s legislative session will be over how to replace a temporary drug possession law passed in 2021 in response to the a decision called Blake v. State of Washington, in which the state supreme court ruled that an existing law banning drug possession was unconstitutional because it criminalized “unknowing” as well as knowing drug possession.
The interim law, which expires in July, shifted most drug possession from a class C felony to a simple misdemeanor and required police to refer people people to treatment or other services for the first two offenses. Democrats have introduced three competing replacement bills that range from increasing criminal penalties for drug possession to decriminalization.
Last week, Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Redmond), who chairs the Law & Justice committee, introduced a bill that largely decriminalizes possession of “personal amounts” of drugs. The legislation leans heavily on the recommendations of the Substance Use Recovery Services Advisory Committee (SURSAC), which was established in the interim bill and issued a report in December. The committee recommended decriminalizing possession of small amounts of drugs—similar to laws recently passed in Oregon and British Columbia—as well as exploring the creation of safe supply system, which would create a regulated, medical-grade supply of controlled substances to drug users. A solid body of academic research supports safe supply as a key to preventing overdose deaths.
However, Sen. Dhingra has acknowledged her bill doesn’t have the votes to pass in the Senate, telling PubliCola, “Even if the policy [the SURSAC committee] designed doesn’t have the votes in the legislature, it’s important that their recommendations are represented in the debates as the legislature moves forward.”
Sen Jesse Salomon (D-32, Shoreline) has introduced a bill backed by a handful of Democrats and Republicans that would re-criminalize drug possession (addressing the issue raised in Blake by adding the word “knowingly” to existing law); increase penalties for drug possession’ and mandate treatment.
But the bill that seems most likely to emerge from committee is one sponsored by Sen. June Robinson (D-38, Everett), which reinstates the 2021 law but encourages participation in pre-trial diversion, including treatment, as an alternative to criminal penalties.
2. Earlier this month, the state Public Employee Relations Commission ruled that a group of deputy city clerks and strategic advisors in the city’s legislative department could join the Professional and Technical Employees Local 17 (PROTEC17) bargaining unit, which also represents employees of the city council’s Central Staff, the city archivist, and the City Auditor.
Not everyone at the clerk’s office supported unionizing. The office is a motley group of employees who do very different kinds of jobs, under very different daily working conditions; they include IT professionals, staffers who read and decipher legislation on the fly during council meetings, and aides who deal directly with the public.
It’s unclear which issues the union will help employees of the clerk’s office tackle, but there are plenty of possibilities. Unlike employees in some city departments, many of those in the clerk’s office have had to return to (or remain at) their desks at City Hall, regardless of whether their job is public-facing or something that could be done from home. Some employees have job titles that don’t obviously correspond to their actual duties, resulting in lower pay than if they had a different job classification—a frequent complaint in many city departments. Workers with HR complaints have recourse to an ombudsperson, but their jobs are at-will and their ultimate boss is the city council president, a rotating position that’s currently filled by Debora Juarez.
Although it’s somewhat unusual for white-collar city workers, including many in highly compensated strategic advisor jobs, to unionize, there is a precedent in the legislative department: The clerk’s office is following in the footsteps the council’s central staff, who joined Protec17 in 2019.
—Andrew Engelson, Erica C. Barnett