Washington legislature approved and Gov. Jay Inslee quickly signed a major new drug policy Tuesday that keeps controlled substances illegal while increasing resources to help those struggling with addiction.
A compromise reached a day earlier by democratic and Republican leaders sought to bridge a divide between liberals who believe drugs should be decriminalized and conservatives who insist the threat of prison is necessary to force people into treatment.
The law maintains criminal penalties for drug possession, making it a felony punishable by up to six months in prison for the first two offenses and up to one year thereafter. But police and prosecutors would be encouraged to divert cases for treatment or other services, and the measure provides millions of additional dollars for diversion programs and to provide short-term housing for people with substance use disorders.
The Senate voted in favor 43-6; the House 83-13 for.
Lawmakers said the bill was a balance between public policy and compassion for those struggling with drug addiction.
“It is our deep hope that this will help people away from the scourge of addiction, that it will reduce crime overall in our communities and will help our children be safe from the pain of drug addiction,” Inslee said before signing the bill into law.
Lawmakers were under pressure to pass a bill not only because of the soaring addiction crisis, but because of a self-imposed deadline: A temporary, two-year-old law making the intentional possession of drugs illegal is set to expire on July 1.
Unless the compromise became law, possession of the drugs — including fentanyl and other dangerous opiates — would be decriminalized under state law. The only other state that has tried to decriminalize drug possession is the neighboring country Oregonwhere the experiment has gotten off to a rocky start.
Several lawmakers made emotional statements about losing close relatives to addiction. Late. Ron Muzzall, an Oak Harbor Republican, broke down as he described how his niece, Rachel Marshall — creator of the popular Seattle company Rachel’s Ginger Beer — died last month.
“If we can’t offer hope to these people who are in the grip of addiction, what are we helping?” he said. “I failed. My niece, who I loved and had a great relationship with. She hid that addiction from me.”
Another Republican, Sen. John Braun of Centralia, lost a nephew two years ago and said in recent weeks he has often thought about him and what the state could do differently to help others.
“If we want to save people’s lives, if we want to help people – and I think everyone in this House does – we have to try something else,” he said.
Late. Yasmin Trudeau, a Tacoma Democrat, said she supported the bill as a first step. But she urged her colleagues to be ready to do more to shore up housing and behavioral health resources.
“We have so much work to do beyond this bill to actually achieve everything that’s in it,” Trudeau said. “We’re not going to achieve that with a bill. … And we’re not going to achieve that by just criminalizing those who are deep in their addiction, deep in poverty and deep in pain and trauma.”
Under the law, the sale of drug paraphernalia, such as glass pipes for smoking fentanyl, is a civil offense. But possession is not prohibited, and public health programs are allowed to distribute such materials as well as test strips that can detect the presence of fentanyl or other substances in drugs.
The law allows cities and counties to ban drug paraphernalia and allows them to regulate recovery housing and harm reduction programs such as those that provide methadone or other medication to treat addiction, just as they regulate other essential public services.
In 2021, the Washington Supreme Court struck down the state law that criminalized drug possession as unconstitutional because it did not require prosecutors to prove that someone knowingly possessed the drugs. Washington was the only state in the country without that requirement.
In response, lawmakers made intentional drug possession a misdemeanor and required police to refer offenders for evaluation or treatment for their first two offenses. But there was no obvious way for officers to track how many times someone had been referred, and access to treatment remained inadequate. Lawmakers made the measure temporary, giving themselves until July 1 to come up with a long-term policy.
Inslee called lawmakers back to the Washington Statehouse for the special session after they failed to pass a new drug law last month.
“This has taken longer than many bills to get to my desk,” Inslee said. “But I think this process produced a better bill.”