The Washington State Supreme Court struck down the state’s felony drug possession law on Thursday. The ruling impacts every police agency and jail across Washington, with many departments immediately ordering their officers to stop making arrests for simple drug possession.
It has some people concerned about the implications.
“We are going to have a huge problem. It’s going to be out of control, I think,” said Rebecca Popesu, who lives in Seattle.
Washington’s Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that the state’s felony drug possession law is unconstitutional, because unlike every other state – Washington’s law did not protect people who are unknowingly in possession of drugs.
But the ruling essentially leaves the state without a law to handle felony drug possession.
It’s forcing police departments to immediately change what they consider a drug crime, and law enforcement agencies from all over the state are letting residents know their responses will be different.
“At this point and time we are not going to make any custody arrests or arrests of an individual for having that controlled substance,” said Major Andrew Popochock with the Bellevue Police Department. “Yesterday it would’ve been you could be arrested for that possession. Today we’re not going to make an arrest,” Popochock said.
The Seattle Police Department announced a similar change, saying, “RCW 69.50.4013, also known as simple drug possession, is no longer an arrestable offense. It also cannot be used as a legal basis to seize an individual.”
SPD said effective immediately, officers will no longer detain nor arrest individuals under RCW 69.50.4013 alone, nor confiscate drugs from an individual based only on a violation of RCW 69.50.4013.
It’s a change that has people worried that an already serious drug problem in Western Washington will get worse.
“So I can just pop out a baggie of cocaine and do it right here right now and everything would be OK? I’m not OK with that,” said Adrian Popesu, who lives in Seattle.
KIRO7′s Deedee Sun asked Bellevue Police if there is a certain volume of possession that would still be considered a crime.
“What about if someone has a kilo of cocaine?” Sun asked. “How does that work?”
“That’s a question we’ve got to have a little more legal interpretation before we go answer it,” Popochock said. “We don’t usually run across that person with a large amount without some reason. For example, if you have text messages, distribution material, something else that goes along with it – that would give us the nexus to say you’re distributing drugs,” he said.
Popochock reminds residents, the change does not impact anything else other than that one single law.
“I know this affects that fear of crime. There’s that fear that something is going to happen. I want to assure them officers are out there every day, making those arrests, being visible in the community and we’re there to support you,” Popochock said.
Some are hopeful the WA Supreme Court ruling will bring new ways to address substance abuse.
“I definitely think there are different ways to handle it,” said Sophia Schuessler, another Seattle resident. But she admits it’s still a jarring change.
“It’s kind of scary,” Schuessler said.
The change also impacts people who are currently in jail solely on drug possession charges. Island County’s Sheriff Rick Felici said in an emailed statement, “There is currently only one inmate in the Island County Jail who was being held solely on a charge of possession of a controlled substance. That inmate is in the processes of being released as a result of this court decision.”
KIRO 7 has asked how many people in the King County Jail this ruling impacts.
Lawmakers like State. Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond) said they will be looking at legislation to address the court’s opinion, which means more changes could be coming.
Governor Jay Inslee suggested on Thursday there may be ways to amend the law to require prosecutors to prove someone knowingly or intentionally possessed the drugs.
Dhingra also said the case is providing an opportunity to “correct wrongs of the past.”
She said in an email:
“The war on drugs had devastated communities of color and this is an opportunity for us to take a public health approach to substance use disorder. The balance of our system has been tilted too far away from rehabilitation and toward punishment. It’s time to restore the balance that our system has lost. I look forward to working with my colleagues on legislation that strikes the right balance.”
The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office cited other concerns, like the impact on the department’s ability to detect higher-level drug crimes or getting people access to diversion programs.