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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Lawmakers will take another shot at Washington’s drug-possession law

Starting Tuesday, special session targets soon-to-expire legislation

By Shari Phiel, Columbian staff writer
Published: May 14, 2023, 6:05am

State lawmakers will be back in Olympia this week for a special session to take on the state’s soon-to-expire drug-possession law. Legislators failed to reach agreement on a “Blake fix,” after Senate Bill 5536 was voted down 43-55 just hours before the 2023 session adjourned.

Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, said Friday that he is optimistic legislators will reach a deal well before the end of the 30-day special session.

“I do think we’ll get this done next week during the special session,” he said. “We’re not quite there yet.”

Braun and other lawmakers from the 17th, 18th, 20th and 49th districts discussed the upcoming special session, which begins Tuesday, and other bills during a review of the 2023 legislative session Friday hosted by the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce.

Braun said Democratic and Republican caucuses in the House and Senate are finally working in good faith to hammer out the details ahead of the session. He said he expects the proposed legislation to pass with strong bipartisan support.

“It will give law enforcement, the prosecutors, the cities and counties the tools they need to take control of the streets, get the folks the treatment they need and the treatment they deserve, and also keep good law and order across our communities,” he said.

Washington’s current drug-possession law expires July 1, leaving no penalty in state law. If the law expires without a replacement, cities will be left to adopt a mix of local ordinances.

At the heart of the dispute between the two parties is whether to maintain a criminal penalty for drug possession and, if so, at what level. Alternatives to prosecution and incarceration also must be defined.

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“Cities and counties are eager to see a statewide policy that balances accountability and treatment, and I believe we can produce a bipartisan bill that does just that,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a press release announcing the special session. “Details are still being negotiated, but caucus leaders share the desire to pass a bill. I believe that starting the clock on May 16 will put us on a path to getting the job done this month.”

Braun, who is the Republican caucus leader, said public safety issues in general were at the forefront during the 2023 session.

“I think this was probably the top issue in our session,” he said.

Braun said legislators also worked to get funding for a regional law enforcement training center and address reforms to vehicular pursuit laws passed in 2021.

He said the change made to the police pursuit law was a “half step forward” in the right direction.

“I think we made progress on pursuit. … It will do some good. I don’t think it will solve all of the problems or give law enforcement all of the tools they need to deal with the lawlessness we see in many of our communities,” Braun said.

Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, said progress on bringing a regional training center to Clark County was due in large part to the support of local law enforcement and city and county officials.

“It was the work of our law enforcement folks, our mayors and Mayor Anne (McEnerny-Ogle) and the team she brought to Olympia to continue to advocate and ask, ‘What is it we need to do to make sure this is in the House budget?’ … All of us worked together,” she said.

Stonier said the driving force behind her support for the training center is the ability to attract candidates from the areas they will be serving, which will foster greater trust between the community and law enforcement.

Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, serves on the Senate’s Law and Justice committee. She said she was disappointed that her bill to add fentanyl and other synthetic opioids to the endangerment with a controlled substance statute never made it out of the House.

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