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Tuesday, November 28, 2023
Nov. 28, 2023

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In Our View: Legislators must compromise to pass drug law

The Columbian

A year ago, when thrown an unexpected curveball by the state Supreme Court, legislators barely fouled it off to give themselves another swing. This year, they whiffed.

Following a failure to effectively address drug possession laws in the state, lawmakers should be sent back to the batter’s box. Gov. Jay Inslee should call a special session for the Legislature to complete a task that was viewed as imperative at the start of the 105-day session that concluded Sunday.

The current situation is unworkable for communities, law enforcement and those struggling with addiction; a legislative fix is required for a problem that was wholly foreseeable.

In 2021, the Washington State Supreme Court struck down the criminal statute deeming possession of a controlled substance a felony. The ruling in State v. Blake led to stopgap legislation last year and an understanding that the issue would be fully addressed this year.

It wasn’t. Now, without quick work, drug possession will be legalized statewide in July, when the 2022 law expires. That could lead to a mishmash of city and county ordinances that will be chaotic for both residents and law enforcement. Conflicting laws and treatment options would only exacerbate an opioid crisis that is growing throughout the state.

As Gov. Jay Inslee said: “We cannot accept decriminalization in the middle of a fentanyl crisis.”

Actually, we cannot accept decriminalization at any point. The law must continue to hold dealers accountable and must provide a balance between treatment and punishment for users.

On the final day of the legislative session, the House rejected a bill that had been passed by the Senate. Southwest Washington Republicans voted against it, while local Democrats were in support.

Senate Bill 5536 would have increased penalties for drug possession compared with the current law. It also would have allowed somebody convicted of drug possession to vacate their conviction by completing a designated substance use disorder treatment program and provided more leeway for judges in handing down punishment. Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said, “There were so many offramps, that wasn’t really a credible threat.”

The bill states: “Law enforcement officers are encouraged to offer any individual arrested for simple possession a referral to assessment, treatment, or other services, such as arrest and jail alternatives and law enforcement assisted diversion programs, in lieu of booking the individual in jail and referring the case for prosecution.”

In many cases, treatment is a necessary alternative; help is more effective than incarceration in getting people to change their behavior. But lawmakers must make clear — and the courts and police must reinforce — that illegal drugs are, indeed, illegal.

The United States has seen the detrimental impact of the War on Drugs, which fractures communities and often results in Draconian and unequal punishment. But we also have seen the effect of lax enforcement, which enables addictions that destroy families and diminishes the social structure of our communities.

Lawmakers must compromise to assist users and provide clear guidelines for those tasked with enforcing the law. That also must include a bolstering of treatment programs; directing somebody toward treatment is ineffective if options are not available.

Inslee should be quick to call legislators back for another swing at the issue. Our communities cannot afford another strikeout.

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