Washington lawmakers are in a race against the clock to keep their state from becoming the second in the nation to decriminalize possession of hard drugs.
Gov. Jay Inslee is calling lawmakers back for a special session Tuesday after the legislature failed to reach an agreement on a new drug law during the regular session.
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“We’ve known since last year that we needed to pass legislation regarding this,” state Rep. Peter Abbarno, a Republican, told Fox News. “It’s pretty unfortunate to find that the can had been kicked so far down the road.”
The problem started in 2021 when the Washington Supreme Court struck down the state’s felony ban on drug possession as unconstitutional because it did not include an intent requirement. Lawmakers temporarily made drug possession a misdemeanor offense with the goal of coming up with a permanent solution.
But that hasn’t happened yet, and the misdemeanor law expires July 1.
Several bills addressing the issue were proposed, Abbarno said. Senate Bill 5536, which would have made possession a gross misdemeanor, came the closest to passing, but 15 Democrats joined all 40 Republicans in voting it down on the final day of the legislative session.
It “didn’t have teeth,” Abbarno said of the bill. House Republicans argued its jail diversion process was too lenient and would lead to a revolving door of offenses.
Abbarno said his ideal drug possession bill would strike a balance between “accountability and compassion.”
“When I look around my community, I don’t want to see somebody struggling with addiction, merely just thrown in jail. I want them to have the services they need,” he said.
But he also wants to ensure “people are held accountable” for using and possessing dangerous drugs like fentanyl.
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As overdose rates skyrocketed and public drug use became commonplace in many cities, some local governments have passed their own laws cracking down on drugs. Marysville was the first city in the state to recriminalize possession, and later passed another ordinance making public drug use an arrestable offense.
If the state doesn’t replace the misdemeanor law, Abbarno predicts a “domino effect” of cities setting their own drug laws.
“I’m hoping that everyone’s feet are held to the fire and we actually do our job and come out of there with an agreement,” he said.
Oregon, Washington’s neighbor to the south, became the first state in the country to decriminalize drug possession after voters approved Measure 110 in 2020.
But criticism of the law has grown as overdose deaths continue to increase. An audit found the state’s health authority could not provide data showing how hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for addiction treatment were spent.
“You look at what communities and states are doing around you and see how you can improve on it,” Abbarno, who represents a district in southwest Washington, said. “You don’t often want to follow them down the rabbit hole.”
Special sessions last 30 days in Washington, but Inslee’s office said lawmakers should be able to finish within several days if they reach a consensus.
The state legislature has already earmarked more than $600 million in new spending on services for those with substance use disorders.
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