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Spin Control: Opponents of ‘war on drugs’ didn’t let drug possession crisis go to waste

The Washington Legislative Building, on the Capitol Campus, as seen from the southeast corner at sunset in this undated photo.  (Jim Camden/The Spokesman-Review / For The Spokesman-Review)

“Never let a crisis go to waste,” attributed at various times to Winston Churchill, Rahm Emannuel 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.

The high court ruled that Shannon Blake, a woman who had a small baggy of meth in the coin pocket of her jeans when Spokane police served a search warrant at a house where she was, shouldn’t have been convicted of felony possession even though she admitted the drugs were “on her.”

The jeans were a second-hand pair bought by a friend and given to her two days before the arrest, she said. She didn’t know the drugs were there and had never used meth, which her boyfriend corroborated. It was a case of “unwitting possession,” she claimed.

The trial court didn’t agree, said she hadn’t proved unwitting possession and found her guilty. Not so fast, said the Supreme Court. The state has the burden of proving criminal intent; it can’t criminalize conduct that is “essentially innocent.” Although the Legislature has amended the drug possession laws multiple times, it never added the requirement that a defendant knowingly possessed the drugs.

Or one could go back to April 2021, when the Legislature passed a new temporary drug possession law, which resulted in most people suspected of simple possession being referred to treatment. Set to expire on July 1, 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 that 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 rewrite 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,” she said. “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 money already in the state’s General 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 – as of Friday, there were 537 overdose deaths in King County alone, which is more than half the number for 2022 – 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. In the Senate, Reps. Joe Schmick and Mary Dye, a pair of southeast Washington Republicans, voted the same as West Side Democrats Frank Chopp and Cindy Ryu.

But the bill received strong bipartisan support, a fact Gov. Jay Inslee noted at the bill 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.

Name that tune

Of course, it wouldn’t be a classic debate without someone quoting a rock song. That fell to Rep. David Hackney, D-Tukwila, a former federal prosecutor who said he’d seen the effects of drug addiction.

“As Neil Young has sung, ‘I’ve seen the needle and the damage done,’ ” Hackney said. Young fans would recognize the line from “The Needle and the Damage Done,” which is the B-side of the “Old Man” single and describes heroin addiction among some of his friends and bandmates.

Record tied, not broken

In the final week of the regular session, some Democratic staffers were confident the Legislature would set a record in Washington history: finish on time, go home and stay, for the sixth session in a row.

Special sessions that extend lawmakers’ stay in Olympia or bring them back to handle unforeseen circumstances are common. During and after the financial crisis of the previous decade, when tax revenues were tight and control of the Legislature was narrowly split, they often needed extra innings to agree on a budget.

But with Democratic control of both chambers and the governor’s office – and revenue regularly exceeding projections – overtime hadn’t been needed since 2017.

Returning back to rewrite the drug possession laws kept them from setting that record.

Instead, they tied the record of five regular sessions without the need for an extra session, which hadn’t happened since 1899. It should be noted, however, that prior to 1980, the Legislature only met every other year, so that previous record covered 10 years without a special session.

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