May 1, 2023 - News

With Washington state set to decriminalize drugs, cities may step in

Illustration of two scales of justice, one large and one small, tilting in opposite directions.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Local officials around Washington state — including in Seattle — are proposing their own laws to punish drug use, now that drug possession is set to become decriminalized statewide this summer.

What's happening: Washington's Legislature adjourned about a week ago without agreeing on a new law addressing drug possession.

  • If lawmakers don't reconvene and take action before July 1, Washington is set to become the second U.S. state to decriminalize possession of hard drugs, after Oregon voters approved an initiative to do so in 2020.

Latest: On Thursday, Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison and two Seattle City Council members announced a local proposal to charge people with a misdemeanor if they use drugs publicly within city limits.

Why it matters: Policymakers are struggling with how to address rising overdose deaths from fentanyl and other drugs, while weighing if criminal penalties are harmful or helpful in getting people into treatment.

Yes, but: If cities and counties adopt their own laws governing drug possession, it could create a patchwork of laws — potentially with different criminal penalties — from one local jurisdiction to another.

Catch up quick: Washington's drug possession law is expiring because it was designed as a temporary response to a 2021 state Supreme Court ruling, which struck down Washington's longstanding law that made drug possession a felony.

  • State lawmakers agreed to make drug possession a misdemeanor offense for two years, with the requirement that people be offered treatment for their first two violations.
  • The idea was that lawmakers would come up with a permanent policy before the two-year law was set to expire.

Yes, but: That has yet to happen.

  • Instead, a proposed agreement to make drug possession a gross misdemeanor — less severe than a felony, but more severe than the current misdemeanor penalty — fell apart last month in the state House, on the final day of lawmakers' 105-day session.
  • Some Democrats argued the proposal would punish drug use too harshly, while many Republicans said the plan was too lenient.

What they're saying: "Every day, people on our streets are dying of overdose and drug-related harm," Davison said while announcing Seattle's proposal to treat public drug use as a misdemeanor.

  • "We need to reclaim our public spaces — all of them," she said, adding that Seattle's proposal is modeled after one Bellingham city officials approved in April.

The other side: Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who chairs the council's public safety committee, said she won't consider a local penalty for drug use while it's still possible for the Legislature to find a compromise on a statewide policy.

  • "A patchwork quilt of different laws across the State would have unwelcome unintended consequences," Herbold said in a written statement.

What's next: Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee said that he hopes to bring the Legislature back for a special session to address the issue in May, before the state's current drug law expires.

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