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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Inslee calls WA Legislature special session to address drug possession

Gov. Jay Inslee is calling a special session of the state Legislature to get new legislation on certain drug possession laws that balance adequate penalties with the opportunities for drug treatment.  (By Jim Camden / For The Spokesman-Review)
By Daniel Beekman The Seattle Times

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is calling a special, 30-day session of the state Legislature for May 16 so that lawmakers can try to pass a new drug possession law to replace a stopgap measure that expires July 1, Inslee announced Tuesday.

“My office and I have been meeting with legislators from all four caucuses and I am very optimistic about reaching an agreement that can pass both chambers,” Inslee said in a news release.

“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. 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.”

The soon-to-expire measure classifies drug possession as a misdemeanor, which some lawmakers regard as too lax and others regard as too harsh.

“There’s a lot of communication going on right now between Democrats and Republicans,” Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Seattle, said Tuesday, before Inslee’s announcement.

“We’re meeting virtually and connecting on calls. It’s pretty intense right now,” added Goodman, a member of the House’s Civil Rights & Judiciary Committee.

The special session is needed because lawmakers didn’t pass a new law during their 105-day regular 2023 session. The state House voted down a deal on April 23, the last day of the regular session, that would have maintained a criminal penalty for illicit drug possession.

If the Legislature doesn’t adopt a new measure before July 1, there will be no statewide law in effect after that, leaving each city and county to handle drug possession in its own way.

Lawmakers are getting “very close” to resolving the matter, Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, said Monday night, hoping a special session could last only a day or two.

“We’ve been talking the entire time and those conversations have not stopped,” said Dhingra, who chairs the Senate’s Law and Justice Committee.

Drug possession was a felony (punishable by up to five years in prison) until 2021, when the state Supreme Court struck down that law. In a case called State v. Blake, the court decided the law was unconstitutional because it included people who didn’t realize they were carrying drugs.

The ruling suddenly decriminalized drug possession statewide, igniting a debate in the Legislature about how to respond. Lawmakers ultimately passed a temporary measure in 2021 that classified intentional drug possession as a misdemeanor (up to 90 days in jail) and required police to refer people to services twice before jail. That’s the stopgap set to expire soon.

The 2021 approach has aggravated some police and city leaders, who have blamed the new rules for what they have described as an increase in drug use, crime and disorder. Meanwhile, advocates on the other end of the philosophical spectrum have urged lawmakers to eliminate penalties for drug possession rather than persist with a costly, ineffective “War on Drugs.”

In the regular 2023 session, Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, sponsored a bill to restore drug possession’s classification as a felony, arguing the threat of prison would provide “the proper leverage” to compel people into treatment. Dhingra sponsored a bill to decriminalize drug possession while expanding treatment and services.

Neither proposal got traction, so the debate coalesced around a middle-road bill sponsored by Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett. The state Senate and House passed different versions of Senate Bill 5536, then struggled to reconcile those versions.

That proposed compromise that House members rejected on April 23 – in a vote of 43-55 – would have classified drug possession and public drug use as gross misdemeanors (up to 364 days in jail) and barred cities from criminalizing drug paraphernalia. The deal would have encouraged, but not required, police and prosecutors to divert people from jail and trial, allowed people to vacate convictions via treatment and services and appropriated $43 million for programs like 23-hour drug crisis relief centers, mobile treatment units, recovery residences and housing vouchers.

Republicans in the House called the bill too lenient and some Democrats called it too tough.

On Tuesday, Robinson described ongoing conversations among “all four caucuses” of the Legislature. She said she still hopes to see a bill gain bipartisan support.

The sticking points in the current discussions are “nothing new” since April 23, she said.

“The things we’re working through were raised as issues last month,” Robinson said. “We’re not starting from scratch.”

Goodman, the House Democrat, is encouraged that “we’re now communicating on paper, so there’s no goal posts being moved at the last minute and no miscommunication,” he said.

The challenge is to reconcile concerns about public drug use with concerns about harmful incarceration, Goodman added.

“Yes, public drug use has to be addressed. Yes, the ‘War on Drugs’ has been awful to marginalized people,” he said.

Local jurisdictions have already moved to pass their own laws criminalizing drug possession and public use to fill the vacuum left by the state Legislature.

The Spokane City Council on Monday had a first reading of an ordinance that closely mirrored the Legislature’s middle-road proposal, criminalizing the possession of illegal drugs within city limits. That ordinance is scheduled for a vote during the upcoming May 8 council meeting.

Despite the state Legislature’s special session, Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, who has championed passage of the local law, is still encouraging the City Council to move forward.

“I think we should continue moving forward with our own ordinances, because there are no assurances that a special session will get anything done quickly, or at all,” she said in a Tuesday interview. “Then we’ll see what happens at the state level.”

City Council President Breean Beggs said Tuesday evening that a vote would go forward as scheduled, and that he expected the ordinance to closely match whatever compromise the legislature agrees to during the special session.

“I’ve spoken with Sen. (Andy) Billig, and he supports going ahead with our local law,” Beggs said. “He expects it will provide a good example for the Legislature.”

Emergency passage of the ordinance is expected, which would allow it to go into effect immediately. If the state Legislature ultimately agrees on a law with significant differences compared to Spokane’s ordinance, Beggs anticipated that the City Council would amend the local law in response.

Spokesman-Review reporter Emry Dinman contributed to this report.