New Washington law keeps drugs illegal, boosts resources for housing and treatment

May 15, 2023, 9:05 PM | Updated: May 16, 2023, 7:12 pm

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — 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 $44 million for investments that include methadone mobile units, crisis centers and short-term housing for people with substance-use disorders.

“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.

The Senate voted 43-6 in favor; the House 83-13 in favor.

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

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, 2-year-old law that makes intentional drug possession illegal is due to expire July 1.

Unless the compromise became law, drug possession — even of fentanyl and other dangerous opiates — would have become decriminalized under state law. The only other state that has tried decriminalizing drug possession is neighboring Oregon, where the experiment is off to a rocky start.

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 that 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.

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.”

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New Washington law keeps drugs illegal, boosts resources for housing and treatment