Washington lawmakers considering new approach to drug possession law

Victor Mendez is a recovery coach in Omak, helping people emerge from substance abuse.

To connect with people, he draws on his own story.

“I was addicted at a young age of 13 years old, from there I spent the next 32 years of my life in and out of prison,” Mendez said.

Some of the time he served in California was for drug possession.

“I went to prison for two years because of a dime bag of heroin,” Mendez said.

In Olympia, drug laws are under new scrutiny since a 2021 state Supreme Court ruling found Washington’s felony drug possession law unconstitutional.

Lawmakers responded by making possession of drugs like cocaine and heroin a misdemeanor, requiring people be referred to treatment before they’re charged.

That stopgap measure expires this year, so legislators and Gov. Jay Inslee are looking for a permanent fix.

Proposals range from re-writing a felony possession law to decriminalizing drugs.

“I don’t think total decriminalization is the right approach, and the reason is I think we need to promote and enable people getting treatment to get off this chemical addiction which is ruinous in peoples’ lives,” Inslee told KIRO 7.

The governor says the possibility of criminal sanctions helps push people toward treatment.

“We want treatment, that’s the ultimate resolution. Having people sit in jail for 20 years is not the solution, the solution is to break their addictive behavior,” Inslee said.

Republican leaders hope for a bipartisan law, possibly by making drug possession a gross misdemeanor, where people face penalties if they repeatedly refuse treatment.

“I think there’s a lot of agreement broadly that we’re not here about reinventing the war on drugs, we’re trying to get people into treatment and keep them in treatment, but also a growing recognition that we can’t do that outside the criminal justice system,” said Sen. John Braun (R-Minority Leader).

Mendez says making sure people get treatment, like he eventually did, is what matters most.

“A person with a substance abuse disorder doesn’t need jail,” he said.