Bold Compromise: WA Lawmakers Tackle Drug Possession Reform

Olympia, Washington – Just hours before the start of a crucial special session, state lawmakers in Washington revealed their ambitious plan on Monday afternoon to elevate the penalty for drug possession to a gross misdemeanor. This proposal aims to address the complex policy challenges that have haunted legislators following a 2021 Supreme Court decision invalidating the state’s drug possession law. Washington communities continue to grapple with the repercussions of the drug crisis and an alarming surge in overdose deaths.

The newly proposed plan is the culmination of weeks of intense negotiations among lawmakers, following the failure of a similar policy earlier in April. Noteworthy changes from previous versions of the bill include a reduction in the maximum sentencing for certain possession convictions. The latest version also dilutes a provision that previously sought to prevent cities and counties from establishing their own regulations concerning drug paraphernalia.

These alterations indicate that lawmakers are striving to find a middle ground and garner support from both Republicans and Democrats, rather than relying solely on the majority Democrats, some of whom oppose punitive measures for drug possession. Lawmakers are scheduled to convene at the Capitol on Tuesday, with the possibility of voting on the proposal on the same day.

Revisions to Penalties

Apart from increasing the penalty for drug possession, the plan introduces a new statewide offense called “knowing use” of drugs in public places, distinct from drug possession itself. Both offenses would be classified as gross misdemeanors. However, for both crimes, the maximum fine and punishment would be lower for the first two convictions. Typically, a gross misdemeanor carries a maximum sentence of 364 days in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.

Under the proposed law, individuals convicted for the first or second time for possession or public drug use after July 1 would face a penalty of up to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. Upon a third conviction, the punishment would increase to a maximum of 364 days in jail. Furthermore, the plan would grant cities and counties the authority to regulate clinics that distribute sterile drug use supplies and offer additional services, causing concerns among organizations involved in such initiatives.

Exception for Drug Paraphernalia

An earlier version of the bill had prohibited cities and counties from regulating drug paraphernalia, including pipes, altogether. Republicans advocated for local control, and House Republicans listed this as a top priority to be addressed in a letter to the governor on April 29. The Monday release of the bill maintains the prohibition on local governments regulating drug paraphernalia but introduces an exception. It permits cities and counties to enact laws and ordinances “related to the establishment or regulation of harm reduction services” and drug paraphernalia.

Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, one of the lawmakers involved in the bill’s negotiation, acknowledged that some localities are uncomfortable with this provision, as it opens the possibility for cities and counties to effectively prohibit harm reduction services. Organizations that operate sterile supply-distribution programs in Washington worry that allowing local jurisdictions to establish their own rules could undermine interventions that effectively mitigate the health risks associated with drug use and encourage individuals to seek treatment.

Harm reduction programs, such as those providing sterile supplies, are based on the public health concept of minimizing the harms associated with drug use beyond the inherent risks of the drugs themselves. For instance, unsterilized needles can lead to illnesses, while sharing drug paraphernalia can contribute to the spread of diseases. These programs not only address the risks associated with unclean supplies but also offer additional services such as naloxone, a medication that can reverse opioid overdoses, and medical care for wounds and abscesses.

Washington has a rich history with such programs, as the first publicly sanctioned sterile syringe program in the United States was established in Tacoma in 1988. In 2020, programs partnering with the state Department of Health distributed around 20.5 million clean syringes in nearly 105,000 encounters, according to available data from the department.

Everett Maroon, executive director of Blue Mountain Heart to Heart in Walla Walla, emphasized the importance of the interactions people have in settings where they receive sterile supplies. These relationships convey care and support to individuals at a time when they need it most. For those who have lost connections to their families, work, and neighbors, these interactions can serve as a lifeline.

T. Scott Brandon, executive director of the Olympic Peninsula Community Clinic in Port Angeles, highlighted the significance of trust-building between service providers and those seeking help. The provision of clean materials fosters trust and establishes an open door for proactive steps towards treatment. Without the ability to engage with individuals still actively using drugs, the likelihood of establishing relationships that facilitate treatment diminishes.

Although the nature of future local regulations remains uncertain, Brandon expressed concerns that there could be a ban on materials that are truly life-saving, which would be tragic for his community, which faces an unusually high rate of overdose deaths.

Prospects for Tuesday

Washington’s temporary misdemeanor law will expire on July 1, prompting lawmakers to strive for a deal to extend the law earlier this year. Party leaders and lawmakers involved in crafting a compromise agreement during the late session spent the past few weeks negotiating an accord, with discussions intensifying over the weekend. By late Monday morning, they had reached a “framework,” and lawmakers convened privately in caucuses in the afternoon to review the details of the negotiated proposal.

Governor Jay Inslee, speaking to reporters on Monday afternoon, expressed confidence in the bill, deeming it a “very reasonable approach.” He believed there was cause for optimism regarding its passage. Inslee stated that the proposal aligns with his vision, which focuses on providing treatment to those in need while maintaining a criminal sanction as an incentive for individuals to seek treatment.

If lawmakers fail to pass the bill before July 1, drug possession would effectively be decriminalized statewide. However, some local governments have already put forth their own proposals. Rep. Goodman anticipated a vote on Tuesday, acknowledging the constructive efforts that have been invested in the process while expressing the desire to conclude proceedings and return home.

Source – Seattletimes