Update: The Cascadia Daily reported that “local Democrats in the state Legislature helped pass a new law criminalizing drug use and possession during a one-day special session in Olympia on May 16, but some said the new law was less than ideal. The bill passed with strong bipartisan support, 83–13 in the House and 43–6 in the Senate. The six lawmakers who represent parts of Whatcom County — all Democrats — voted in favor of the legislation.”
Here’s what’s going on…
The state legislature reached the end of the session without passing legislation (SB 5536) to assign statewide penalties for drug possession; Governor Inslee insists that the work be completed, and has scheduled a May 16 special session. In the meantime, work continues behind the scenes to resolve the impasse before the beginning of the special session, so that new law is in place by July 1.
Conflicting positions focus on whether and how much evidence of public substance possession should be criminalized. A public health approach argues that possession is a feature of substance use disorder, and that substance use disorder is a health issue addressed through a voluntary treatment-and-services lens. A criminal justice approach argues for reinstating a criminal penalties paradigm, with mandated arrest and judicial interventions, including incarceration. Proponents of the public health approach posit that harm-reduction and medical intervention is paramount to saving lives, and criminalizing behavior undermines the potential for sustained, meaningful ‘recovery’. Proponents of the criminal justice approach conflate possession with supposedly-widespread crime, and insist that mandatory arrest will save lives by preventing access to controlled substances, if even for a short time.
What once was a private act has increasingly become public as the result of a variety of unrelated socio-economic problems, and therein lies the problem. Criminalizing possession cements into place a revolving-door cycle that centers ever-more jail and criminal justice resources, but keeps the offending person out of view in the short term. However, every arrest and jail stay undermines individuals’ ability to secure stable housing, find and maintain employment, and engage in health-promoting relationships. Harm reduction and public health interventions center health-supportive, compassionate services to engage individuals over time, as clients and patients with agency who need care to support different choices. Individuals can be expected to cycle through services as they learn to make healthier choices, but without the heavy and punitive burden of a criminal history.
A compromise position is being hammered out as you read this and may be largely determined before the special session convenes for a vote. Decision makers include Senators Manka Dhingra, June Robinson, Mike Padden, John Braun, and Representative Roger Goodman. Legislators in LD 40 and LD 42 will convene in the special session to vote on compromise legislation. Absent new legislation enacted on July 1, local jurisdictions will have authority to take matters into their own hands.
Contact your legislators
Influence your legislators by letting them know you support decriminalizing drug possession and funding humane systems to address substance use disorder behaviors. Send your legislators a message through the SB 5536 bill page letting them know your neutral position. If you need help with language, see our suggestion below.
I’m reaching out to discuss the upcoming special legislative session, starting on May 16, regarding Washington State’s drug possession laws.
I believe it’s crucial that our state focus on treatment and harm reduction measures, rather than further criminalizing drug possession or reinstating punitive measures. A punitive approach has proven ineffective and only serves to incarcerate people, while a more compassionate approach could lead to better outcomes for individuals and our community.
Taxpayer resources have long been ineffectively directed to the criminal justice system to resolve public health issues. It’s past time to redirect funding for treatment and social support. Please support decriminalizing drug possession and funding humane systems to address substance use disorder behaviors.