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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington House passes latest bill to fix state’s drug possession law after debate stretches into wee hours

Washington’s domed Legislative Building, finished in 1928, and the nearby Temple of Justice reflected in the Capitol Lake on a calm day.  (By Jim Camden/For The Spokesman-Review / For The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – Debate over the latest bid to fix Washington’s drug possession law – by keeping it a misdemeanor in the state – stretched into the early hours Wednesday before the House of Representatives finally passed the bill.

The main issue: how much should the state focus on criminalizing drugs versus providing access to treatment.

The proposal that passed the House 54-41 is different from one that passed the state Senate earlier this year. That bill upped the penalty for possession to a gross misdemeanor, a charge with more jail time and a higher fine.

The state Senate’s version had a higher penalty for possession, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine. The House proposal keeps possession as a misdemeanor but allows people to seek treatment in lieu of jail time. The House proposal also allows people charged only for possession to have their charges dropped if they complete treatment.

The debate over the bill began late Tuesday night and stretched into Wednesday morning.

Some Republicans said the bill does not do enough to motivate people to get treatment, while some Democrats said the bill’s criminal penalty was too harsh. Three Republicans voted in favor of the bill, and five Democrats voted against it.

Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, who chairs the committee that the bill came out of, said he had “great ambivalence” toward the bill. He praised the treatment aspect, which he said could help the people who need it the most.

“On the other hand, I’m quite apprehensive of criminalizing those very same people,” said Goodman, who ultimately voted in favor of the bill.

The bill stems from the 2021 state Supreme Court ruling that said the state’s drug possession law was unconstitutional because it did not require a person to knowingly possess drugs to be convicted. The decision sent the Legislature scrambling two years ago to come up with a fix.

At the time, lawmakers came up with a temporary fix that made possession a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. But the law sunsets in July, giving the Legislature another opportunity to rethink Washington’s drug laws.

Under the proposal, a defendant would be referred to an assessment program to determine if they should seek treatment. If they are referred to treatment, they would have to “substantially comply” with the program for six months to have their charges dropped. If they are not referred, they could complete 120 hours of community service and still have their charges dropped upon completion.

The proposal would also set up a probation program after conviction that could suspend a sentence if the offender complies with treatment or submits evidence of their community service.

People who are convicted of possession could have their charges vacated after two years if they do not have any other arrests, charges or convictions.

The debate Tuesday was personal for lawmakers, many of whom brought up stories of friends, families or themselves suffering from substance use disorder.

Rep. Leonard Christian, R-Spokane Valley, said his mother was addicted to fentanyl for years until her death. He said the bill ultimately does not do enough to help people who are suffering, calling it “a little Band-Aid” on a bigger problem.

“This is deeply personal to me and what we’re doing is allowing people to continue in these habits without honest love and compassion and trying to get them better,” he said.

Rep. Tarra Simmons, D-Bremerton, who was incarcerated, said the bill was “a very hard one” for her to vote on because she did not support adding criminal penalties to possession.

“Incarceration never did anything to me except add another layer of trauma to my life and to the lives of my children,” she said.

She said her yes vote was in favor of the multiple pathways to recovery as laid out in the bill.

The proposal would provide additional funding for treatment providers and facilities, and expedite the process for setting up new treatment facilities in communities. It would also expand a recovery navigator program and increase the number of recovery residences across the state.

The bill now heads back to the state Senate for final approval, which must be done by April 23.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.