The following editorial originally appeared in The Seattle Times:
It appears the Legislature will indeed beat its July deadline to come up with a compromise bill on how to adjudicate illicit drug possession.
Ever since lawmakers came up with a stopgap law that made simple drug possession a misdemeanor (in response to the Washington Supreme Court striking down the state’s felony drug-possession law as unconstitutional), lawmakers from both parties have spent hours toiling over the issue.
The Republican approach, informed by law enforcement, and the Democrats’ plan, with input from substance abuse experts and law enforcement, have been forged together with the results being a bill that seems sensible, viable and effective. It would, among other things, treat simple drug possession as a gross misdemeanor instead of a misdemeanor. The difference? Potentially, more jail time and higher fines. But the compromise bill goes beyond just defining penalties.
Senate Bill 5536, now being debated in the House, “encourages” police to offer treatment to suspects and mandates treatment for first-time convictions. A second conviction would net a minimum of 21 days in jail up to one year; a third conviction at least 45 days in jail.
Along the judicial process, defendants would be offered treatment instead of a trial. The bill requires courts to vacate convictions for people who complete treatment.
In essence, it treats those who repeatedly are caught with small amounts of illegal drugs as a mental health or addiction problem, not a crime.
Yet, there’s also consequences for repeatedly violating the law: jail. The bill allows for those professionally trained in assessing addiction — not just judges — to recommend remedies or sentences.
If passed by the House, as it should be, and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, the law doesn’t stop at policing drug users. The bill calls for more funding for the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program.
Under the stopgap law, police and prosecutors are encouraged to refer those arrested the first and second times to treatment or assessment, and aren’t required to offer treatment for subsequent arrests, hence the relatively hands-off approach over the last two years.
Under the compromise bill, law enforcement can approach and engage with those openly using drugs, a scene that often shocks visitors to downtown Seattle and frustrates business owners, workers and residents. More importantly, the lax approach has caused distress to the loved ones of those who have found the streets and public transportation to be a haven to enable their addiction.
In an era when compromise and bipartisanship is a rarity, middle-line Republicans and Democrats got it right. Hopefully they can keep that momentum in the waning weeks of the session and pass a sensible bill that rightly focuses on the humanity of the drug epidemic, offering help wrapped in accountability and hope.