Washington lawmakers pass bill keeping drugs illegal

Washington lawmakers approved a major new drug policy as they returned to work for a special session Tuesday, saying it strikes a balance between public order and compassion for those struggling with substance abuse.

The compromise reached a day earlier by Democratic and Republican leaders seeks 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 bill 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 millions of additional dollars for diversion programs and to provide short-term housing for people with substance- use disorders.

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

Lawmakers are 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 becomes law, drug possession — even of fentanyl and other dangerous opiates — will 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.

Gov. Jay Inslee called lawmakers back to the Washington Statehouse for the special session after they failed to pass a new drug law last month.

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 would support 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 agreement, 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 would be allowed to distribute such materials as well as test strips that can detect the presence of fentanyl or other substances in drugs.

Cities and counties would not be allowed to ban drug paraphernalia, but they would be allowed 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.

Real-world impacts

A sign inside John Volken Academy in Kent reads “We change lives.”

Patrick Harrison says the long-term addiction recovery center saved him.

“It was either get busy living or get busy dying and this was my last shot,” he said.

Harrison suffered from addiction for eight years and now works as a program director helping other men get their lives on track.

Students stay at John Volken Academy for at least two years, learning job skills like working in the academy’s furniture store, Price Co.

As the state legislature wrestled with criminal penalties for drug possession, the big question has been whether the justice system can effectively force people into treatment.

Harrison says it can.

“All those times I was arrested, I look at as I was being rescued, I was being saved from myself.”

Mack Aylesworth of the Recovery Navigator Program helps people in the justice system and says recovery takes more than a 28-day treatment program.

“Supporting people longer term I think is the real ticket,” he said.

Caleb Banta-Green, a Research Professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, says traditional addiction programs and treatment through primary care at most meet 20 percent of the need, leaving a big gap.

“We’re putting a lot of money on the diversion process which is great if we had something to divert people to, and we still really don’t,” he said.

Banta-Green says the most promising model is a health engagement hub where people who use drugs can access a variety of services.

Banta-Green suggests people looking for treatment information visit this website.