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Monday, February 26, 2024
Feb. 26, 2024

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Drug possession compromise fails in Washington Legislature as session ends


OLYMPIA — The Washington House voted down a last-minute deal to maintain a criminal penalty for drug possession and boost funding for treatment Sunday night, the final day of the legislative session, leaving the state’s drug laws in question and potentially laying the foundation for a patchwork of approaches throughout the state.

In a dramatic vote, the compromise bill failed, 43-55. No Republicans voted for the measure, while Democrats were divided.

The current law is a stopgap passed after a state Supreme Court ruling invalidated Washington’s felony drug possession law. That stopgap, which makes drug possession a misdemeanor, expires in July.

Democrats had come up with a compromise plan, announced Saturday night, to raise the penalty to a gross misdemeanor. But when the final debate started late Sunday, the compromise was pummeled by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Republicans argued that it was too soft on people who use illegal drugs and some Democrats said the focus should be on boosting treatment, not criminalizing drug use and addiction.

“We don’t have to hurt people to help people,” said Rep. Emily Alvarado, D-Seattle, during the floor debate Sunday evening.

“Harsh penalties don’t dissuade drug usage, but they do have unintended consequences like barring people from housing and services,” said Rep. Chipalo Street, D-Seattle. “Please don’t double down on the mistakes of the past and the war on drugs.”

Republicans also urged “no” votes during the floor debate.

“If the state of Washington can’t give meaningful help, I vote ‘no’ and ask local government to take control,” said Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale.

Rep. Greg Cheney, R-Battle Ground, said the compromise bill didn’t require people using illegal drugs to take responsibility.

“They refuse to acknowledge they have a problem and don’t want the help,” he said. “At some point, for the safety of the community, they have to go to jail.”

There were lawmakers who tried to salvage the deal.

Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, urged lawmakers to vote “yes,” saying all the problems people see now — “defecation in the streets, needles in our parks” would only grow worse if lawmakers failed to act. “There is not a better option on the table,” she said.

House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, who voted for the compromise, extended the normally brief period for a roll-call vote for several minutes, apparently giving lawmakers time to reconsider. But opponents on both sides of the aisle did not budge.

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Jinkins, speaking to reporters after the vote, said she was “flummoxed,” and noted three Republicans had voted for a version of the bill passed by the House with a lighter touch on the criminal penalty in mid-April, but none voted for the compromise version that contained a harsher penalty Sunday.

The failure marred the end of a consequential session that included the passage of a $69 billion operating budget for the next two years, which significant increased spending aimed at making housing more affordable and supporting special education.

The session also saw Democrats pass laws to protect abortion rights and ban the sale of AR-15 rifles and other so-called assault weapons. But lawmakers struggled throughout the session to come to an agreement on drug possession.

A late appeal by Gov. Jay Inslee did not move Democrats opposed to the proposal. In a tweet and a short video Sunday afternoon, Inslee called the proposal “a sound compromise regarding drug possession that avoids decriminalization” while providing “options for treatment.”

“I think that’s a good result — let’s get it done,” Inslee said, several hours before the House voted down his suggestion.

The debate was made necessary by a 2021 Washington Supreme Court ruling that tossed out the state’s felony drug possession statute as unconstitutional, because a person could not know they had drugs and still face prosecution.

That year, lawmakers passed stopgap legislation stating that knowingly possessing drugs would constitute a misdemeanor, which can be penalized by up to 90 days in jail or up to a $1,000 fine, or both. And they set it to expire this July.

The compromise proposal would have raised the penalty to a gross misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to 364 days in jail or up to a $5,000 fine. It would have also allocated about $271 million in state funds toward treatment, housing and other services for people struggling with addiction.

Inslee could call lawmakers into a special session, or they can let the law expire and allow cities and counties to pass their own drug possession ordinances.