Washington legislatures adjourn without reaching a solution on drug possession bill

A contentious bill on drug possession penalties failed to pass out of Washington State Legislature. With the current possession law expiring this summer, the risk of decriminalizing hard drugs in Washington is looming.

Gov. Jay Inslee said state lawmakers failing to reach an agreement on illegal drug possession laws was unacceptable.

"My belief is the legislature needs to do its job. Its job is to produce a bill with the requisite votes that will not decriminalize these matters, and will provide drug rehabilitation. They ought to be able to do that. I’m insistent they do that," said Inslee.

Drug possession is currently a misdemeanor in the state. This was after Washington Supreme Court’s "Blake Decision" in 2021, invalidating possession as a felony crime.

Officials in cities like Kent said that court ruling sparked a rise in open drug use.

"What we saw was almost an immediate increase in people using drugs in public places, flaunting it like ‘what are you going to do?’" said City of Kent mayor Dana Ralph.

The current law will expire on July 1. Senate Bill 5536 was supposed to be the fix—stiffening penalties and creating easier paths to treatment and rehabilitation. However, since the bill failed to pass out of session, state lawmakers have to act fast before drugs like fentanyl, methamphetamine and heroin are decriminalized. The threat increases the possibility of a special session in the next few weeks to resolve the issue.

In a tweet on Thursday, Inslee wrote, "I had four productive meetings with the leaders of the House and Senate in an effort to fashion an agreement regarding the Blake decision. There’s increasing cause to be hopeful that we can achieve a solution shortly. We’ll continue further discussion in the next few days."

Cities like Kent are wasting no time proposing their own ordinances, picking up the job Ralph said should have been done at the state level. 

"It doesn’t make a ton of sense to have a patchwork across the board. So, we’re already talking amongst cities about what do we do so that our ordinances are similar so that we can get that kind of consistency. But, it is 280 plus cities now having to do something," said Ralph.

The mayor said Kent’s goal is to adopt a rule similar to Senate Bill 5536.

"It’s a treatment-forward approach; wanting people to have the opportunity for diversion, getting them into treatment. That’s the ultimate goal," said Ralph. "The other side of the coin, really, is if you chose to not go to treatment then there needs to be some sort of penalty or consequence, which would ultimately be jail."

Kent was the first city in Washington to ban public drug use. Ralph’s new proposal would make illegal drug possession a gross misdemeanor. The mayor said she plans to present the idea at the City Council meeting on May 2.

"I think it’s crisis level across our state," said Ralph. "If we don’t do something, it’s only going to get worse."

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