Special session: State Legislature approves stricter penalty for possession of illegal drugs

Washington State House Democratic leaders speak to reporters after the passage of legislation overhauling state drug policy. (Photo by Laurel Demkovich/Washington State Standard)

State legislators on Tuesday approved an overhaul of state law guiding penalties and treatment options for illegal drug possession or the use of illegal drugs in public. The measure passed during a special session focused specifically on the issue, clearing the Senate on a 43-6 vote and the House by an 83-13 margin. Gov. Jay Inslee signed the legislation into law on Tuesday afternoon.

Central to the bill is a tougher penalty for drug possession. This would change from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor, with a penalty of up to 180 days in jail and a maximum $1,000 fine on a first offense. The legislation also designates public use as a crime and sets the same penalty. If a person is convicted more than twice for these offenses, the jail term could rise to 364 days.

These provisions will take effect on July 1.

The legislation will also enable cities and counties to set their own rules around drug paraphernalia for “harm reduction” initiatives, like needle exchanges and the distribution of smoking supplies.

Lawmakers included $63 million in the bill for programs meant to help alleviate illegal drug use and problems tied to it.

In order for people to access offramps away from jail, toward pretrial diversion treatment programs, prosecutors would need to sign off.

People who comply with certain treatment requirements can seek to have convictions vacated for drug offenses that the bill deals with. A vacated conviction limits how much an offense adversely affects a person going forward, both within the legal system and when it comes to securing jobs and housing.

By passing the bill, lawmakers have avoided a situation where illegal drugs would have been decriminalized this summer under state law, with local governments left to adopt their own policies. This would’ve happened because the Legislature passed a temporary measure in 2021 setting a misdemeanor penalty for possession but scheduled that law to expire in July.

They passed that earlier legislation after the state Supreme Court in 2021 declared unconstitutional a previous drug possession statute, which included the possibility of a felony penalty. That case was known as State v. Blake and the bill lawmakers passed Tuesday has become known as the “Blake fix.”

The Standard’s Laurel Demkovich and Jerry Cornfield were both at the Capitol covering all the action throughout the day. You can find their full reporting below.

— By Bill Lucia, Washington State Standard

41 mins ago

House leaders from both parties praise bill’s approval

2 hours ago

House approval

3 hours ago

House debate begins

4 hours ago

The local perspective

5 hours ago

House members gather

5 hours ago

Senate approval

7 hours ago

How we got here

41 mins ago

House leaders from both parties praise bill’s approval

By: Laurel Demkovich – 3:53 pm

House leadership in both parties praised the bill’s passage as the first step in strengthening the state’s behavioral health system.

The bill includes $63 million for housing, recovery initiatives, workforce programs, and support for youth. The policy builds off of programs already being set up, such as the recovery navigator program.

The state is also required to collect data on the recovery services funded in the bill.

For people who are suffering from substance use disorder, House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacaoma, said, “Help is on the way.”

Washington state House Democratic leaders speak to reporters after the passage of legislation overhauling state drug policy. (Laurel Demkovich/Washington State Standard)

House Minority Leader Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, said the bill gives law enforcement and prosecutors new tools, though it’s still only a step.

“No matter how much money you throw at the problem … we can’t fix all these problems overnight,” he told reporters. “It takes time.”

Most of the Republican caucus voted for the bill on Tuesday, after none voted for the last version in April.

Stokesbary said most of his caucus ended up voting for the bill because it got “significantly better.”

Last updated: 3:58 pm

2 hours ago

House approval

By: Laurel Demkovich – 2:43 pm

The bill passed the House 83-13 with two members excused.

It now heads to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk where he could sign it as soon as today.

Jamila Taylor, D-Federal Way, left, and House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, right, celebrate after House passage of compromise legislation to overhaul the state’s drug possession laws, on May 16, 2023. (Laurel Demkovich/Washington State Standard)
The 83-13 final vote count is seen displayed in the House chamber after legislation to increase penalties for drug possession passes in the chamber on May 16, 2023. (Laurel Demkovich/Washington State Standard)

Last updated: 2:56 pm

2 hours ago

Differing Republican views

By: Laurel Demkovich – 2:39 pm

House Republicans are offering competing perspectives on the policy.

Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, said the bill will take the beginning steps to help people recover from drug use problems.

“We are investing in significant resources, significant dollars into recovery,” he said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said the Legislature should have simply addressed the Supreme Court’s decision by adding the word “knowingly” back into the statute and keeping drug possession a felony.

Instead, the Legislature took the Blake decision as an opportunity to open up many more questions surrounding drug policy, Walsh said.

“The proper response would be to restore our drug laws to where they were pre-Blake,” he added.

Last updated: 2:41 pm

2 hours ago

House debate still going

By: Jerry Cornfield – 2:31 pm

As House debate neared one hour, Rep. David Hackney, D-Tukwila, began with a line from a Neil Young song, “I’ve seen the needle and the damage done” to bolster his argument that the Legislature needed to act.

But, he noted, “Even if this bill is passed today, we are not done with this issue.”

2 hours ago

‘Bad drug policy’: One Democrat’s switch to a “no” vote

By: Jerry Cornfield – 2:09 pm

Rep. Lauren Davis, D-Shoreline, backed the legislation in April. Not today.

“This bill is bad drug policy,” she said because it “neutralizes” the most effective tools to combat the fentanyl crisis and help people into recovery.

And, she said, “It upholds the wrong notion that we can punish someone into recovery.”

The purpose of the special session is to solve a problem, Davis added. “This bill doesn’t solve the problem. It makes it worse.”

3 hours ago

House debate begins

By: Laurel Demkovich – 1:46 pm

House debate kicks off with supporters of the bill saying the current version strikes a balance between accountability and treatment.

Rep. Roger Goodman, chair of the House Community Safety, Justice and Reentry Committee, called the situation currently “a mess.”

“This is 50 years of active failure of drug policy,” he said, describing the new bill as a path forward.

Rep. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia, said the new version is better than any other draft that’s come before the Legislature.

“The work really begins today,” he said.

Democrat Rep. Gerry Pollet, of Seattle, said he would switch his vote to “no,” despite voting in favor of the bill twice before.

In his floor speech, he expressed concerns with the requirement that prosecutors have to agree to pretrial diversion to get treatment for offenders.

Giving the discretion of who can get treatment to prosecutors will most negatively affect people of color, Pollet said.

“We will be watching you,” he said, urging the Legislature to come back and add strict guidance for prosecutors when making these decisions.

Last updated: 1:52 pm

3 hours ago

Inslee makes an appearance

By: Jerry Cornfield – 1:06 pm

Gov. Jay Inslee dropped by the House following the Senate vote. He attributed the landslide Senate passage to the comprehensiveness of the bill and expected a similarly large margin in the House.

“Everything seems on track. I don’t think they’ll need my help,” he said. “They largely hewed to what I suggested.”

Gov. Jay Inslee speaks with state Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, in the wings of the House during the May 16, 2023, special session. (Jerry Cornfield/Washington State Standard)

As to the final language, the governor said it provides “a stronger lifeline” to those in need of help.

“I think we’ve come up with a solution that leads with prevention,” he said. “It is not designed to put people in jail.”

Last updated: 1:08 pm

4 hours ago

The local perspective

By: Jerry Cornfield – 12:26 pm

Beyond Olympia, city and county leaders are poring through the fine print of the legislation.

In Snohomish County, the County Council is scheduled to vote on its own local drug possession law. It won’t be necessary now, its author said today.

“While the bill is far from perfect, it appears to be the compromise that can get across the finish line,” County Councilmember Nate Nehring said in an email. “We will have a lot of work at the local level to navigate the implementation of diversion programs and I hope that this solution will help save lives and make our streets safer.”

4 hours ago

‘Difficult’ and ‘consequential’

By: Laurel Demkovich – 12:15 pm

At a briefing with reporters after the Senate vote, Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said the bill was the “most difficult and most consequential one” Senate lawmakers dealt with this year.

Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, voted against the bill the first time it came to the Senate floor.

This time, she voted “yes.” She noted that this version had more options for treatment and called the bill “implementable” in communities across the state.

State Senate Democratic leaders speak to reporters after a vote in their chamber approving compromise legislation to revamp the state’s drug possession laws. (Laurel Demkovich/Washington State Standard)

Dhingra said this bill along with others passed this session, such as those to expand the behavioral health workforce and bolster the behavioral health 988 hotline for people in crisis, will help set up the needed infrastructure to help those with substance abuse disorders.

“This is a really good step in the right direction,” Dhingra said.

5 hours ago

House members gather

By: Jerry Cornfield – 12:00 pm

In the House, members were slowly filling up the 98 seats.

Rep. Jamila Taylor, D-Federal Way, who helped negotiate the agreement, watched the Senate vote and predicted passage by a large majority in the House. She expressed confidence more of her Democratic colleagues will support this version than did the last one.

A quick reminder: 43 Democrats voted for the deal on April 23 and 15 did not.

These are the 15 Democrats who dissented:  Emily Alvarado, Jessica Bateman, Liz Berry, Frank Chopp, Beth Doglio, Darya Farivar, Mia Gregerson, Nicole Macri, Sharlett Mena, Melanie Morgan, Julia Reed, Kristine Reeves, Sharon Tomiko Santos, Tarra Simmons and Chipalo Street.

All 40 Republicans also opposed the bill last month.

5 hours ago

The Senate ‘no’ votes

By: Jerry Cornfield – 11:49 am

The six dissenting votes in the Senate were cast by Democratic Sens. Bob Hasegawa, Jamie Pedersen and Rebecca Saldana, and Republican Sens. Mike Padden, Ann Rivers and Mark Schoesler.

5 hours ago

Senate approval

By: Laurel Demkovich and Jerry Cornfield – 11:34 am

The Senate has approved the legislation on a 43-6 vote. The bill now goes to the House.

Bill sponsor Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, called the bill the “most challenging piece of policy” that she’s worked on as a legislator.

“Getting to this point has not been an easy path,” Robinson said.

Senators shared stories of family members battling substance use disorder, sometimes winning and sometimes losing.

“This legislation today offers hope. We’ve got to offer hope,” Sen. Ron Muzzall, R-Oak Harbor, said.

The House will take up the proposal shortly. In that chamber, it’s sure to have mixed support.

Last updated: 11:43 am

5 hours ago

Last time around vs. this time around

By: Laurel Demkovich – 11:30 am

The last time the state Senate voted on a Blake bill, it passed on a 28-21 margin. Fourteen Democrats and 14 Republicans supported that version.

On his way to the floor, Braun said he expected a much larger majority today. We’ve seen signs already. Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, voted no in March but said on the floor that she is voting ‘yes’ today.

Still, some Republicans, including Spokane Valley Sen. Mike Padden, will likely again vote against the bill.

Padden has pushed to go back to the original felony statute for drug possession. In a floor speech, he said the six-month jail sentence is not enough to hold offenders accountable.

6 hours ago

Senate begins floor debate

By: Laurel Demkovich – 10:59 am

The Senate has begun floor debate on the Blake bill.

Most senators were in the chamber in person, with a handful participating remotely.

Under the bill, knowingly possessing illegal drugs or knowingly using them in a public place would be gross misdemeanors, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. No one could be charged for both possession or use for the same offense.

Those arrested would be offered pre-trial diversion but courts can’t grant that without a prosecutor agreeing to it. Convictions could be vacated.

Local cities and counties would be able to enact their own laws for the distribution of certain drug paraphernalia through public health “harm reduction” programs, like clean needle exchanges.

The bill also includes funding to set up behavioral health systems needed to underpin it across the state.

Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, said before the debate that he anticipated strong bipartisan support in both chambers for the bill, though he didn’t have an exact vote count to share.

The last time the Senate voted on the underlying legislation that would be replaced by today’s amendment was March 3. It passed 28-21 with mixed support from both parties.

Last updated: 11:00 am

6 hours ago

Sheriffs and police chiefs react

By: Bill Lucia – 10:35 am

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs responded to the legislation lawmakers will consider by saying it is “an improvement” over the last version put forward during the regular session. That earlier bill failed on the final day in a 55-43 House vote. But the law enforcement leaders also outlined concerns about the latest plan, which you can read in the letter below sent to lawmakers.

Despite the issues they raised, the sheriffs and chiefs added: “We understand it is likely the most meaningful proposal that the Legislature is willing to enact. Under the circumstances, we simply encourage you to cast your vote according to your community needs.”

WASPC Letter – Blake Proposal (5.15.23)

6 hours ago

What do lawmakers plan to vote on?

By: Bill Lucia – 10:09 am

A summary of the legislation that lawmakers plan to consider on Tuesday is below, featuring a side-by-side comparison to previous versions of the Blake fix. This document outlining the latest measure, technically an amendment to Senate Bill 5536, was prepared by legislative staff and released Monday.

For full coverage of the proposal’s release yesterday, check out this article.

Blake Compromise Side-by-Side Summary

Last updated: 10:14 am

7 hours ago

How we got here

By: Laurel Demkovich – 9:58 am

As lawmakers begin to gather in the Capitol for their one-day session, let’s take a look at how we got here.

The “Blake fix” stems from a 2021 state Supreme Court case where the court ruled that the state’s felony drug possession law was unconstitutional because it didn’t require someone to “knowingly” possess drugs for conviction.

State v. Blake centered around Shannon Blake, who was arrested in 2016 in Spokane and convicted of simple drug possession because she had a bag of methamphetamine in the jeans she was wearing. Blake argued the jeans were from a friend and she did not realize the drugs were in them.

At the time, drug possession was considered a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

In February 2021, the court ruled that the state’s drug possession law at the time violated due process because someone could unknowingly possess drugs and still be arrested.

Following the decision, those with pending simple possession charges were released from jails and their charges dismissed throughout the state. Those convicted of simple possession of a controlled substance under the law became eligible to have their conviction vacated and for a refund of any penalties or fines paid on these cases.

The court’s decision came mid-legislative session and left lawmakers scrambling to come up with a fix in the few short months they had left.

Their temporary solution made drug possession a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, but required law enforcement to divert offenders to treatment on their first two arrests.

That law sunsets in July, and if the Legislature doesn’t come up with a new law before then, there will be no state level criminal penalty for drug possession.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

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