Washington lawmakers reach deal on drug policy, avoid automatic decriminalization
May 15, 2023, 4:56 PM | Updated: 5:14 pm
SEATTLE (AP) — Democratic and Republican leaders in the Washington Statehouse reached a tentative deal on a major new drug policy Monday, one that would avoid making the state the second to decriminalize the possession of controlled substances.
Lawmakers will consider the compromise Tuesday when they return to Olympia for a special session. Gov. Jay Inslee called them back to work after they failed to pass a new drug policy before adjourning late last month.
Under the deal, intentional possession or public use of small amounts of illegal drugs would be 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.
A temporary, 2-year-old law that makes intentional drug possession illegal is due to expire July 1. So 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.
Lawmakers on both sides said the agreement strikes a balance between compassion and accountability for those struggling with substance abuse disorder. 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.”