May 16, 2023 - Politics

Washington state avoids decriminalizing drugs by passing new law

Illustration of the Washington State Capitol with lines radiating from it.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Washington state has adopted a new criminal drug law, avoiding the statewide decriminalization of drug possession this summer.

Driving the news: A law signed by Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday would make possessing or publicly using drugs a gross misdemeanor offense — a higher penalty than what exists under the state's current law, which is set to expire July 1.

Why it matters: The Legislature adjourned last month without coming up with a new drug possession law, with lawmakers disagreeing about how substance use disorder should be handled by the criminal justice system.

  • The stalemate could have led to cities and counties creating their own local laws, forming a patchwork of different drug statutes throughout the state — an outcome many, including Inslee, warned would create problems.

Details: Under the new law, the penalties for a person's first two drug offenses will be lower than for most gross misdemeanors — up to 180 days in jail, as opposed to the 364-day maximum that normally applies.

  • The maximum fine will also be lowered from $5,000 to $1,000.
  • Those were compromises intended to assuage lawmakers who thought earlier proposals punished drug use too harshly, while also satisfying others who wanted to stiffen criminal penalties.

Plus: The measure encourages prosecutors to divert drug possession cases to treatment or other services before trial, while investing tens of millions of dollars in diversion programs.

  • And it allows convictions to be vacated if people complete treatment.

Catch up quick: The drug law debate came to a head in the Legislature as a result of a state Supreme Court decision two years ago that struck down the state's longtime law that made drug possession a felony. The court said the felony statute was unconstitutional because people could be prosecuted without knowing they had drugs on them.

  • Lawmakers then enacted a temporary, two-year law that made drug possession a misdemeanor — a lower-level offense — while requiring that people be offered treatment instead of prosecution for their first two violations.
  • Agreeing on a permanent law proved difficult, however, causing Inslee to call the Legislature into a special session Tuesday to address the issue.

What they're saying: "We need to address the urgent challenges to public disorder in our communities — but we also want to ensure that people who are socially displaced and languishing in our streets are not needlessly criminalized," state Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland) said in a floor speech Tuesday, shortly before the Legislature passed the bill.

Between the lines: The compromise picked up some Democratic votes not only by cutting the potential jail time, but also by adding more money for social services and legalizing drug paraphernalia such as fentanyl test strips.

  • Republicans, too, got a concession, in that the revised bill will allow cities and counties to enact some local rules governing overdose-prevention programs and needle exchanges in their jurisdictions.

The other side: Some Democrats said the bill still puts too much emphasis on criminal penalties while giving prosecutors too much power to block someone facing charges from being diverted to recovery services.

  • "People don't recover when we put them in cages," state Rep. Lauren Davis (D-Shoreline) said on the House floor.
  • Meanwhile, a few Republicans said the compromise didn't contain stiff enough consequences to push people toward treatment.

What's next: Now that Inslee has signed the measure into law, most of its provisions will take effect July 1.


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