Peninsula lawmakers optimistic

Legislators believe compromise will be reached

The special legislative session set to begin May 16 won’t take long, according to some District 24 representatives.

The North Olympic Peninsula’s lawmakers are confident an agreement can be reached quickly.

“It should take no more than a day or two,” said Rep. Mike Chapman, a Port Angeles Democrat representing District 24, which covers Clallam and Jefferson counties and part of Grays Harbor County.

“A lot of work has already gone into this, ” Chapman added. “We don’t need to start from ground zero.”

In 2021, the Washington Supreme Court struck down the state’s law making drug possession a felony, and lawmakers passed a temporary law set to expire July 1.

Without legislative action, illicit drugs in Washington state would effectively be decriminalized, leaving local jurisdictions to craft their own policies regarding possession and other drug-related crimes.

A bill addressing the issue passed out of the state Senate and also passed the House of Representatives in the last days of the regular session, but senators were unable to agree on changes made in the House. The bill went into a negotiation process known as conference committee, but the final bill failed to pass the House.

All of the North Olympic Peninsula’s lawmakers voted in favor of that bill, Senate Bill 5536.

Teams of lawmakers are currently negotiating a bill that can be brought before the Legislature, said Rep. Steve Tharinger, a Port Townsend Democrat representing District 24, and a full bill should be available for review before lawmakers return to Olympia.

“I voted for the bill, the conference bill; I think that’s a good start,” Tharinger said. “I think it’s important that we have a statewide policy that helps build the bridge between the criminal side and the recovery side. I think the underlying bill does that.”

Some legislative Democrats were advocating full decriminalization, a policy Peninsula lawmakers said they didn’t support.

Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, a Port Angeles Democrat representing District 24, said he’d like to see legislation that makes possession a gross misdemeanor and something that could be prosecuted.

Negotiations on the matter are ongoing, Van De Wege said, adding that, once a deal is reached, all should go quickly.

“I get the feeling they are not close,” Van De Wege said of the negotiating teams.

Tharinger said lawmakers likely would not return to Olympia until a deal has been set. Once the negotiations are complete, Tharinger agreed the session shouldn’t last more than a few days.

“I think we can get a good start in the special session,” Tharinger said. “Obviously, the policy will evolve with time.”

If lawmakers are unable to pass legislation before July 1, cities and counties would then have to pass their own regulations, and, according to Port Angeles Police Department Chief Brian Smith, discussions about doing so have already begun.

“That wouldn’t be the same as having an effective state law,” Smith said. “It’d be a patchwork all over the state.

“The key will be getting something passed that’s simple and enforceable,” he said.

Smith said the current laws regarding drug possession in the state lacked strong enforcement mechanisms to get people into treatment. But even those loose laws were better than complete deregulation.

Smith noted that if legislation didn’t pass, it would be illegal for an 18-year-old to possess cigarettes (the smoking age was raised to 21 in 2019), but not illegal for them to possess dangerous drugs such as fentanyl.

“Washington would be in a race to the bottom,” Smith said.


Reporter Peter Segall can be reached at