Washington state lawmakers seek to avoid decriminalizing drugs

A special legislative committee is considering a policy that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of all drugs, including heroin and methamphetamine.

Washington state lawmakers seek to avoid decriminalizing drugs

SEATTLE (AP)... Washington lawmakers will be considering a new major drug policy at a special session starting on Tuesday. This comes a day after a compromise was reached between Democratic and Republican leaders that they say strikes a good balance between public safety and compassion towards those who have substance abuse problems.

Jay Inslee invited lawmakers to Washington Statehouse to hold a special session, after they failed last month to adopt one.

According to the tentative agreement, small amounts of illegal drug used in public or intentionally possessed would be considered a gross misdemeanor punishable up to six month's jail time for the first two offences and up to one year's imprisonment after that.

The measure would encourage police and prosecutors to divert cases to treatment or other services and provide millions of dollars additional for diversion programs as well as short-term housing to people with substance abuse disorders.

The temporary law, which has been in place for two years and makes the intentional possession of drugs illegal, is set to expire on July 1. If the compromise fails, then drug possession -- including fentanyl or other dangerous opiates-- will be decriminalized by state law. Oregon is the only state to have decriminalized drug possession. The experiment has not gone well.

Both sides of the aisle said that the agreement struck a balance between compassion for those with addictions and accountability. Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland) called it "a fair compromise" that addressed urgent concerns about public order but followed evidence-based practices to help people in need.

Goodman, and Republican Rep. Peter Abbarno of Centralia said that even if a compromise is approved there will still be much work to do, as the state does not yet have the capacity for treatment or diversion programs it needs to address the addiction crisis.

Abbarno stated that Washington State is 10 years behind the rest of the country in terms of treatment providers, bed space and treatment facilities. Even if we pass this policy we won't see a drop in crime and substance abuse immediately because we lack the workforce development or infrastructure to deal the off-ramps created by this bill.

The Washington Supreme Court overturned the state law that made drug possession a crime in 2021. The court ruled that the law was unconstitutional because it didn't require prosecutors prove someone had drugs knowingly. Washington was the only US state without this requirement.

As a response, lawmakers made deliberate drug possession a misdemeanor, and required that police refer offenders for evaluation or treatment after their first two offences. However, there was no way for officers track how many referrals had occurred, and treatment availability remained inadequate.

The lawmakers made this measure temporary, and they gave themselves until July 1, 2018 to develop a policy that would last a lifetime.

But as this year's session ended late last month, a measure billed as a compromise was voted down in the Democratic-controlled House 55-43.

The lawmakers were forced to find a compromise quickly before the temporary law that made possession of small quantities of drugs a misdemeanor expired.