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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.

Camden: Drug law crisis exploited

By Jim Camden
Published: May 24, 2023, 6:01am

“Never let a crisis go to waste.”

— Attributed at various times to Winston Churchill, Rahm Emanuel and Chris Gregoire.

The looming end of Washington’s drug possession laws was a crisis that provided an opportunity for those who want to shift away from the “war on drugs” policies of the past half-decade.

It was repeatedly described as a crisis during last week’s special session of the Legislature, although the source of that crisis varied depending on who was speaking.

If one wanted to go back to February 2021 — practically the Stone Age in legislative timing — the source would be the state Supreme Court, which ruled the law unconstitutional for lacking the requirement that the possessor in question knowingly possessed the drug.

Or one could go back to April 2021, when the Legislature passed a new drug possession law, which resulted in most people suspected of simple possession being referred to treatment. Set to expire on July 1 of this year, that actually produced two crises. One was that people who were holding or using drugs in public were being let off with little or no consequence other than having their stash confiscated. The other was that what little drug possession laws existed were about to go away.

Whatever its source, the crisis was an opportunity to those who think the war on drugs is an abject failure and has flooded jails with a disproportionate number of people who are racial or ethnic minorities or poor. It offered a chance they didn’t want to waste — to substitute treatment and rehabilitation for incarceration.

The conflict between those who wanted more treatment and those who wanted more enforcement is what kept a compromise from happening in the regular session. By the time lawmakers returned, negotiators had brokered a deal that might pass but that wasn’t a sure thing until the debating started.

A good crisis usually generates strong debate, and the drug possession law was no exception. Lawmakers, including some usually tough-talking, law-and-order conservatives, described their own struggles with addiction to alcohol or drugs and how many years they’ve been clean and sober. Some, like Rep. Jenny Graham, talked about their children’s struggles. Some talked about relatives lost to overdoses.

Asked after the bill received final passage whether she was surprised by the many personal stories of drug abuse and addiction that surfaced during the debate, House Speaker Laurie Jinkins said she was not: “Opioids are an epidemic. I think every person has a story to tell.”

Jinkins and other legislative leaders were confident the new bill strikes a good balance between treatment and punishment, with some $44 million added to some $1 billion already in the state’s operating budget to set up treatment, rehabilitation and rescue programs and train people to staff them.

But that second part will take time as well as money.

In a state where lawmakers on both sides contend drug abuse is a crisis, it’s unknown how long it will take some of those treatment options to reach Washington’s smaller communities or how effective they will be at stemming the tide in larger urban areas.

The final compromise doesn’t make everyone happy.

When the votes were taken, there were some strange bedfellows. In the Senate, conservative Republicans Mike Padden and Mark Schoesler found themselves voting no along with liberal Democrats Bob Hasegawa, Rebecca Saldaña and Jamie Pedersen.

But the bill received strong bipartisan support, a fact Gov. Jay Inslee noted at the signing just hours after it passed. He used the term bipartisan or “both parties” at least five times in four minutes.

While his remarks were bipartisan, the photo-op itself was not. Jinkins, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig and the three Democrats who helped shape the compromise flanked him for the signing, but there wasn’t a Republican in sight.