State passes drug law in single-day session

New law keeps drug possession illegal, boosts treatment resources

OLYMPIA — Washington lawmakers approved and Gov. Jay Inslee quickly signed a major new drug policy Tuesday that keeps controlled substances illegal while boosting resources to help those struggling with addiction. 

A compromise reached a day earlier by Democratic and Republican leaders sought 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 law 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 and the House 83-13 in favor.

All three North Olympic Peninsula legislators — Reps. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, and Steve Tharinger, D-Port Townsend, and Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Port Angeles — approved the bill, Senate Bill 5536.

Said Chapman in an email on Tuesday: “I was glad to vote yes on 5536 during our one day special session to create a bipartisan statewide policy so that law enforcement, prosecutors, judges and treatment providers can now focus on building an effective system for outreach, treatment, and recovery while providing for accountability for repeat offenders.

“Without passage of bipartisan 5536 we would have seen an increase in public drug use with no accountability or ability for those addicted to receive the help and treatment we all want them to receive. I was glad to join with an overwhelming majority of republicans and democrats who came together today to pass this important legislation for WA State.”

Lawmakers said the bill struck a balance between public order and compassion for those struggling with substance abuse.

“It is our deep hope that this will help people away from the scourge of addiction, that it will reduce crime overall in our communities and will help our children be safe from the scourge of drug addiction,” Inslee said before signing the bill.

Legislators were under pressure to pass a bill not just because of the soaring addiction crisis, but because of a self-imposed deadline: A temporary, two-year-old law that makes intentional drug possession illegal was due to expire July 1.

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 the 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.

Inslee called lawmakers back to the Washington Statehouse for the special session after they failed to pass a new drug law last month.

“This has been a longer period than many bills to get to my desk,” Inslee said. “But I do believe this process produced a better bill.”

Several lawmakers made emotional statements about losing close relatives to addiction. Sen. Ron Muzzall, an Oak Harbor Republican, broke up as he described how his niece, Rachel Marshall — the creator of the popular Seattle company Rachel’s Ginger Beer — died last month.

“If we cannot offer hope for these people who are in the throes of addiction, what good are we?” he said. “I failed. My niece, whom I loved and had a great relationship. She hid that addiction from me.”

Another Republican, Sen. John Braun of Centralia, lost a nephew two years ago and said in recent weeks he has often thought of him and what the state could do differently to help others.

“If we want to save people’s lives, if we want to help people — and I think everyone in this chamber does — we have to try something different,” he said.

Sen. Yasmin Trudeau, a Tacoma Democrat, said she supported 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 law, 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 are allowed to distribute such materials as well as test strips that can detect the presence of fentanyl or other substances in drugs.

The law allows cities and counties to ban drug paraphernalia and allows them 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.

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