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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Dems already have head start on new drug law

The Columbian
Published: May 10, 2023, 6:03am

When they return for a special legislative session this month, Washington lawmakers will find a blueprint from which they can construct a reasonable drug policy.

Legislators have been called back to work by Gov. Jay Inslee to rectify a failure from the regular session that ended April 23. In the waning hours of the 105-day session, lawmakers were unable to pass a bill regarding the criminalization of dangerous drugs – a bill they have long known is necessary.

Without a legislative fix, possession of small amounts heroin, fentanyl and other dangerous drugs will essentially become legal July 1, when the current law expires. The problems with such a situation are obvious, even if the solutions are not.

As columnist Danny Westneat of The Seattle Times wrote: “By punting on the issue, they’re leaving an incoherent Wild West situation where drugs may be effectively legal in some cities and towns but not others, while, most crucially, they’re leaving any statewide treatment network unfunded.”

Democrats have strong majorities in the House and the Senate, in addition to holding the governor’s office. Yet when Senate Bill 5536 failed to win approval, some Democrats disingenuously tried to blame Republicans for its defeat. In truth, if Democrats can hold their caucus together on the issue, they can pass legislation that is important for the health and safety of all Washingtonians.

While Southwest Washington Reps. Monica Stonier and Sharon Wylie voted in favor of the final version of the bill, enough of their fellow Democrats jumped ship to scuttle the bill.

The issues rest in the balance between incarceration and treatment for drug offenders. Indeed, those represent important distinctions, and treatment should be the preferred option for people struggling with addiction. But it should not be the only one.

Oregon has tried to embrace such an ethos, but the results have not been encouraging. Two years ago, the state changed drug possession from a crime to a civil violation; the plan was to guide offenders to treatment centers. But Westneat reported recently that 4,266 civil tickets have been handed out and fewer than 200 offenders have called the available hotline; only 36 have followed through to receive the recommended health assessment.

Washington Democrats who embrace a utopian view of effective drug enforcement must return to reality and recognize that law enforcement and jurisprudence are important pieces of reducing dangerous drugs in our communities.

In that regard, Senate Bill 5536 provides a good starting point. The bill would make the charge for possession a gross misdemeanor that can be penalized by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. It also would include encouragements for diversion programs and other provisions that drew bipartisan support in the Senate.

In considering a fix that is urgently needed, lawmakers should start with the bill that already passed the Senate and should avoid amending it in a needlessly complicated fashion. The gist: Illegal drugs are illegal for a reason – they are dangerous to our communities; treatment is preferable to incarceration, but criminal penalties must be an option; and treatment facilities must be adequately funded. A carrot and a stick are necessary to limit the scourge of dangerous substances.

The other option is for possession of those substances to become legal in less than two months. That idea should be vehemently rejected by lawmakers from both parties.