Lawmakers strike deal to ensure drug possession remains a crime

The compromise comes as state legislators prepare for special session on Tuesday. Without action, criminal penalties for illegal drug possession are set to expire in July.

By: - May 15, 2023 4:23 pm

(Getty Images)

State lawmakers announced an agreement Monday to toughen the penalty for drug possession and expand pathways into treatment and away from jail for those arrested.

The deal comes hours before legislators convene a special session and, barring another setback, will erase the threat that possession of illicit drugs becomes legal in July. 

Late Monday, legislative leaders were still confirming that they had enough support among their members to pass the measure. A vote could come as soon as Tuesday.

“I’ve known from the beginning this was a really challenging policy to negotiate. I think we have landed on a good compromise position that local jurisdictions can implement,” said Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, who authored the original bill and negotiated the agreement to be considered in the special session.

The lead negotiator for the Senate Republican Caucus called the agreed-upon language  “a compassionate policy with accountability built in.”

“I won’t call what we have done a Blake ‘fix’ but it is certainly an ‘improvement’ and I believe it will save lives and make our communities safer for everyone. If I didn’t believe that, I would not be voting for it,” Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro Woolley, said in a text. 

Knowing possession or use of illegal drugs in a public place will be gross misdemeanors under the bill, according to a summary legislative staff released on Monday. Those arrested could face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine on their first offense.

Those arrested will be offered paths to avoid prosecution with pre-trial diversion but courts cannot grant that option without a prosecutor agreeing to it. People will also be able to have their convictions vacated, which would limit how drug possession incidents affect them going forward, both within the legal system and when it comes to securing jobs and housing. 

The bill would allow cities and counties to enact their own laws allowing for distribution of needles and smoking equipment through their own public health “harm reduction” programs. 

And the state Department of Health would need to notify “appropriate media” in a community of a proposed opioid treatment program but is not required to hold a public hearing on the licensing application. Cities and counties will be limited in the conditions they can impose on permits for such programs, which will be deemed essential public facilities under the agreement.

Blake Compromise Side-by-Side Summary

The legislation also earmarks a substantial sum of new money for bulking up the state’s network of treatment programs. 

Twelve Democratic and Republican lawmakers, three from each of the four legislative caucuses, pieced together the deal in three weeks of negotiations. They briefed their colleagues Monday.

Gov. Jay Inslee met with caucus leaders Monday morning to gauge their progress. Speaking to reporters later in the day, he called the proposal “a very reasonable approach” and said the “tenor of the discussion” with legislative leaders was that “there would be majority support in each chamber and it would be on a bipartisan basis.”

He said he would sign it “as soon as they bring it to my desk.”

The special session formally begins at 10 a.m. Tuesday. The Senate will arrive then with House members expected at noon. 

Inslee called lawmakers back into session to address the effects of a 2021 state Supreme Court ruling known as the Blake decision. 

It wiped away a longstanding law that made drug possession a felony. In response, lawmakers made possession a misdemeanor – but only until July 1 of this year – to buy themselves time to craft a long-term approach.

If they fail to act by July 1, possessing illegal drugs will become legal in Washington – except where a city or county has enacted its own laws on the subject.

Lawmakers wound up in their current political pickle when the House rejected an apparent compromise on the Blake legislation during the final day of the regular session on a 55-43 vote. 

Fifteen Democrats dissented because it would have made possession a gross misdemeanor. They back a lesser penalty or none at all.

All 40 Republicans voted against the bill for other reasons. Some wanted a felony restored. Others opposed provisions overriding city and county power on enforcement of rules for drug paraphernalia and the approval of treatment centers. Many also felt provisions reduced the role of prosecutors in deciding who is offered pre-trial diversion into substance use disorder programs.

Wagoner voted for the original version that passed the Senate in early March. Had the House left it alone, he said, it “would have easily passed on its merits.”

“This whole process was completely unnecessary and created by decriminalization advocates,” he said.

The legislative vehicle in the special session will be Senate Bill 5536. Lawmakers will be voting on an amendment containing terms of the agreement. Additional amendments can be offered in the special session.

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Jerry Cornfield
Jerry Cornfield

Jerry Cornfield joined the Standard after 20 years covering Olympia statehouse news for The Everett Herald. Earlier in his career, he worked for daily and weekly papers in Santa Barbara, California.