Wednesday, June 16, 2021
June 16, 2021

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New Washington law makes drug possession a misdemeanor

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OLYMPIA — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday signed a measure overhauling the state’s approach to drug possession, after the Washington Supreme Court struck down its previous law as unconstitutional.

The new law reclassifies possession of controlled substances, including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, as a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail. The previous law, before being struck down by the court, had made it a felony.

Before signing the bill, Inslee said the measure will “help reduce the disparate impact of the previous drug possession statute on people of color.”

“It moves the system from responding to possession as a felony to focusing on the behavioral health response, which is a much more appropriate and successful way to address the needs that underlie drug abuse,” Inslee said.

In addition to changing the classification, under the new law, police would divert a defendant’s first two offenses to treatment before the case even made it to a prosecutor, and if a defendant’s case ever reached a prosecutor, the prosecutor would be able to divert as well.

The provisions making drug possession a misdemeanor expire in two years — reverting to current law. The provision gives lawmakers time to re-evaluate how the state’s new policies are working and potentially figure out a long-term strategy for drug policy.

Oregon this year became the only other state to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of all types of drugs and increase access to treatment. Washington’s measure likewise aims to greatly expand treatment services and outreach, including to homeless people with severe behavioral health issues.

It says regional “recovery navigator” teams, similar to the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program developed in Seattle and now operating in several counties, will be set up to help provide “continual, rapid, and widespread access to a comprehensive continuum of care” to “all persons with substance abuse disorder.”

The state Supreme Court’s decision came in the case of Shannon Blake, a Spokane woman who had received a pair of jeans from a friend that had a small bag of methamphetamine in a pocket. A 5-4 majority said the state’s drug possession law was unconstitutional because it did not require prosecutors to prove that a defendant knowingly possessed drugs.

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