- Washington state’s Senate approved a major new drug policy which is seen as a balance between compassion and public order for people struggling with substance abuse and addiction.
- An agreement was reached between GOP lawmakers who insist the threat of jail is necessary to force people into treatment, versus Democratic lawmakers who believe drugs should be decriminalized.
- The bill retains criminal penalties for drug possession, but police and prosecutors are encouraged to divert cases to treatment programs.
The Washington state Senate quickly approved a major new drug policy as lawmakers returned to work for a special session Tuesday, sending the measure to the House and saying it strikes a balance between public order and compassion for those struggling with substance abuse.
The compromise reached a day earlier by Democratic and Republican leaders seeks to bridge a gap between liberals who believe drugs should be decriminalized and conservatives who insist the threat of jail is necessary to force people into treatment.
The bill retains criminal penalties for drug possession, making it a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail for the first two offenses and up to a year after that. But police and prosecutors would be encouraged to divert cases for treatment or other services, and the measure provides millions of additional dollars for diversion programs and to provide short-term housing for people with substance use disorders.
The Senate voted 43-6 in favor. Lawmakers are under pressure to pass a bill not just because of the soaring addiction crisis, but because of a self-imposed deadline: A temporary, 2-year-old law that makes intentional drug possession illegal is due to expire July 1.
Unless the compromise passes, drug possession — even of fentanyl and other dangerous opiates — will become decriminalized under state law. The only other state that’s tried decriminalizing drug possession is neighboring Oregon, where the experiment is off to a rocky start.
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Gov. Jay Inslee called lawmakers back to the Washington Statehouse for the special session after they failed to pass a new drug law last month.
Lawmakers on both sides said the agreement strikes a balance between compassion and accountability. Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, called it “a fair compromise that addresses urgent concerns about public disorder but follows evidence-based practices in helping people in need.”
Both Goodman and Republican Rep. Peter Abbarno, of Centralia, said much work will remain even if the compromise is approved, because even with additional funding, the state doesn’t yet have the treatment or diversion program capacity it needs to deal with the addiction crisis.
“The state of Washington is a decade behind in having treatment providers and having adequate bed space and treatment facilities,” Abbarno said. “Even when we pass this policy, we’re still not going to see an immediate drop in crime or substance abuse, because we don’t have the workforce development and infrastructure to deal with the off-ramps that this bill creates.”
Sen. Yasmin Trudeau, a Tacoma Democrat, said she would support the bill as a first step. But she urged her colleagues to be ready to do more to shore up housing and behavioral health resources.
“We’ve got so much work to do beyond this bill to actually achieve anything that’s in it,” Trudeau said. “We’re not going to achieve it with one bill. … And we are not going to achieve it by simply criminalizing those that are deep in their addiction, deep in poverty, and deep in pain and trauma.”
Under the agreement, the sale of drug paraphernalia, such as glass tubes for smoking fentanyl, is a civil infraction, but possession is not banned, and public health programs would be allowed to distribute such materials as well as test strips that can detect the presence of fentanyl or other substances in drugs.
Cities and counties would not be allowed to ban drug paraphernalia, but they would be allowed to regulate recovery residences and harm reduction programs such as those that provide methadone or other medication to treat addiction, just as they regulate other essential public services.
In 2021, the Washington Supreme Court struck down the state law making drug possession a felony as unconstitutional because it did not require prosecutors to prove someone knowingly had the drugs. Washington was the only state in the country without that requirement.
In response, lawmakers made intentional drug possession a misdemeanor and required police to refer offenders to evaluation or treatment for their first two offenses — but there was no obvious way for officers to track how many times someone had been referred, and availability of treatment remained inadequate. Lawmakers made the measure temporary and gave themselves until this July 1 to come up with a long-term policy.
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