Tuesday, September 21, 2021
Sept. 21, 2021

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In Our View: Clarity required as new drug law takes effect

The Columbian
Published:

State laws in Washington can be an unnavigable labyrinth of confusion and contradiction.

The Revised Code of Washington contains 101 titles, many with dozens of chapters. Most of the chapters have multiple laws, adding up to thousands of regulations and prohibitions for Washington residents to follow — and thousands for law enforcement and state agencies to enforce.

It can be confounding. For example, RCW 70A.388.190 prohibits the use of X-rays to see whether shoes fit properly. “This prohibition does not apply to any licensed physician, surgeon, podiatric physician and surgeon, or any person practicing a licensed healing art, or any technician working under the direct and immediate supervision of such persons,” the law reads. Phew, glad we clarified that.

But while some laws can be arcane, there is a reason for each of them. Which is a way of mentioning that many new laws went into effect Sunday. More than 300 bills were passed during this year’s legislative session, and most of them become active 90 days after the close of the session.

Many of those bills deal with the state budget, coronavirus recovery, climate change, taxes and police reform — crucial items that will have a large impact. But some of the most important legislation deals with drug enforcement.

Following a decision from the state Supreme Court that ruled the state’s law regarding drug possession was unconstitutional, legislators were forced to quickly address the issue. Previously, state law said drug possession was punishable by up to five years in prison or $10,000 in fines; the court ruling may have vacated many previous convictions for possession.

Lawmakers responded by making possession of a controlled substance a simple misdemeanor, not a felony. Possession is now punishable by up to 90 days in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. For the first two offenses, those found guilty of possession will be diverted to treatment rather than face jail time.

That change went into effect July 1, but additional funding for community-based recovery programs was allocated Sunday. The new law leaves open the possibility that the misdemeanor penalty could be eliminated in 2023, with the Legislature setting up a committee to review drug laws over the next two years. If no fix is implemented by 2023, the state would end all prosecutions for simple drug possession.

That approach is preferable to an Oregon law that took effect this year. Following a statewide vote in November, Oregon has become the first state to decriminalized possession of small amounts of heroin, methamphetamine, LSD, oxycodone and other addictive drugs.

That is part of a national reckoning over drug enforcement policy, following decades of a “War on Drugs” that has swelled prisons but done little to slow the trade of illicit substances. While a different approach is needed, one that changes the focus to treatment rather than punishment for drug users, states must remain diligent in punishing those who sell dangerous substances. The economic and social toll that drugs take on our communities must not be ignored, but a more thoughtful approach is warranted.

Most of all, clarity is required. Law enforcement leaders and prosecutors have struggled to define the meaning of the state Supreme Court ruling, and Gov. Jay Inslee is preparing a process for people to seek commutation of previous convictions.

It’s all part of the maze that is the Revised Code of Washington — a large book of laws that just got larger.

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