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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington Senate panel approves bill to make drug possession gross misdemeanor

Lights come on in the domed Legislative Building on the Washington Capitol Campus as evening approaches in Olympia.  (Jim Camden/For The Spokesman-Review / For The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – The Legislature is moving forward with a proposal to fix the state’s drug possession laws after a Senate panel on Thursday approved a bill with a larger focus on treating addiction .

The bill has 15 co-sponsors, including Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane.

The Washington Supreme Court ruled two years ago that the state’s felony drug possession law was unconstitutional because it didn’t require someone to “knowingly” possess drugs for conviction. The decision came out of a Spokane case called State of Washington v. Blake.

“What has been really fascinating when trying to deal with the Blake issue is really the fact that everyone is coming to this work with the intention of getting people treatment and helping them on their journey to recovery,” said Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, chair of the Law and Justice Committee.

After the 2021 court decision, the Legislature scrambled to come up with a fix in the few months that were left in that year’s session. Lawmakers agreed on a temporary law making drug possession a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, with offenders diverted to treatment instead of jail for the first two arrests.

That law sunsets in July, leaving the Legislature with a few months to come up with a plan.

The debate has sparked disagreement between those advocating for harsher penalties and those who want lighter sentences. What they have in common is a desired result to get people help to overcome addiction.

The penalty options range from five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, to a gross misdemeanor charge punishable by up to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

An amended bill that passed a Senate committee on Thursday would make possession a gross misdemeanor and incorporate the treatment options recommended by the Substance Use Recovery Services Advisory Committee, a bipartisan committee that has met over the last two years to discuss the state’s drug possession law.

Along with making possession a gross misdemeanor, the bill would allow people charged with possession to take part in pretrial diversion programs and for their charges to be dropped upon completion.

The bill also has a number of requirements for increasing access to treatments and services. If passed, the Health Care Authority would make funding available for construction of recovery residences in all regions of the state. Those residences could receive a real and personal property tax exemption.

The Health Care Authority would also develop training for parents of children with substance use disorders and establish grants for programs to help people recovering from addiction find job opportunities.

The bill also provides money for a number of different treatments and services. It offers funding to expand opioid medication in local jails, treatment for mental health and addiction, and establishes crisis relief centers.

The bill received pushback from Spokane Valley Republican Sen. Mike Padden, whose version of the bill would have made drug possession a felony.

“The reason I think it’s important we continue with a felony is that we need the proper leverage to get these folks into treatment,” Padden said, adding the judicial infrastructure is already set up to treat these like a felony.

Dhingra said a felony charge goes too far because the conviction often has “collateral consequences” for offenders.

In a public hearing earlier this week, a number of Spokane politicians showed up in support for making possession a gross misdemeanor.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said focusing on pre-trial diversion for offenders is cheaper and has fewer negative effects on the community. Still, he said he hoped the state would provide cities with enough resources to make the necessary changes in the bill.

“This is going to be a huge lift for cities,” he said. “It’s going to cost a lot of money.”

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward and Chief of Police Craig Meidl testified in favor of a different bill that didn’t pass the Law and Justice Committee. It would have made possession a gross misdemeanor and allowed someone to complete drug treatment before their conviction is permanent. If the offender failed to complete, they could have faced 45 days in jail.

Woodward said the proposal prioritized treatment and had the tools to help cities successfully implement it. She said the bill provided both “the carrot and the stick” for people to receive treatment.

Meidl said the bill struck a balance between treatment and accountability by giving the courts flexibility.

House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, told reporters Wednesday that the House is waiting to see what the Senate comes up with before launching its own effort. She noted there are conversations happening between both chambers.

The other option for the Legislature is to extend the July 1 deadline.

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.