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Coalition Rolls Out Proposal to Decriminalize Drugs in Washington State

(The Center Square) – A year after the Washington State Supreme Court’s Blake decision struck down the state’s felony drug possession law as unconstitutional, drug-reform advocates have proposed a ballot measure moving away from criminalizing drug use and instead focusing on harm reduction and treatment.

Initiative 1922, proposed by a coalition called Commit to Change WA, would decriminalize personal drug possession and fund – to the tune of $141 million annually – expansion of prevention, treatment, and recovery services using marijuana tax revenue. I-1922 would also help people with simple drug possession convictions on their record to clear said convictions.

Under the proposed ballot measure, police could still seize the drugs.

“We actually tried to move forward with the initiative in 2020 but discontinued signature gathering in support of public health efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19,” said Phyllis McElroy of Momentum Professional Strategy Partners, the strategic communications team behind the I-1922 campaign, in an email to The Center Square. “The Legislature’s reaction to the Blake decision confirmed that I-1922 was still necessary.”

In February 2021, the state Supreme Court found Washington’s simple possession law unconstitutional because it did not require the state to prove intent, in this case, knowledge of possession of a controlled substance. The ruling came in the case of a Spokane woman, Shannon Blake, who had received a pair of jeans from a friend that had a small bag of methamphetamine in a pocket.

In April 2021, the state Supreme Court rejected a request from the state to reconsider its Blake ruling.

Later that month, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 5476, reclassifying drug possession as a gross misdemeanor with fines up to $125. Per the bill, first- and second-time convictions that occurred before the Blake ruling would be vacated in retrial and defendants referred to treatment programs.

Gov. Jay Inslee signed SB 5476 into law the following month, vetoing a portion of the bill that would have created a state fund to reimburse local governments and individuals who incur legal fees resulting from resentencing under the Blake decision.

The bill’s provisions expire by July 1, 2023. SB 5476 also allows judges to set personal use amounts for drug possession laws by that point.

Criminalizing possession of controlled substances like cocaine, heroin, and hallucinogenic mushrooms is counterproductive, according to Commit to Change WA.

“We acknowledge a few people still believe ‘War on Drugs’ rhetoric despite decades of evidence of its failure,” McElroy said. “The bottom line is that arresting people for possession of drugs for their personal use doesn’t address the root causes of either drug use or substance use disorder. Instead, it destabilizes lives, marginalizes people, and increases the likelihood of greater involvement in the criminal system.”

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs took a more circumspect approach when The Center Square asked for comment on I-1922 or the concept of decriminalization of drugs in general.

“WASPC doesn’t comment on ballot issues,” Barbara Smith, the organization’s communications consultant, said in an email response.

Shen then referred to an attached March 24, 2021 statement put out by the WASPC “about the Blake decision which is still our position on the issue.”

The statement reads, in part, “In our opinion, the very least the legislature should do is amend RCW 69.50.4013 (1) to insert the word ‘knowingly’ to address the constitutionality of the simple possession statute. The legislature, however, should not just take the easiest option available. While we are deeply troubled by the Court’s ruling, the legislature now has an opportunity to make meaningful improvements to help those who need help. We ask that the legislature take this opportunity to fix the constitutionality of that statute and also make prevention, intervention, and treatment services as available in the community as drugs are. The legislature should take the steps necessary to improve the lives of those who are suffering – to help those who need help.”

McElroy is confident the campaign can gather the required signatures to get I-1922 on the ballot.

“We’ve just begun gathering signatures, and we’re seeing excitement about having something positive and transformational on the ballot this year,” she said.

The sponsors have until July 8 to collect nearly 325,000 valid signatures of registered Washington voters to qualify for a spot on the statewide ballot in November.

McElroy is just as confident voters will pass the initiative.

“This policy is based on years of community consultations and public opinion research,” she said. “We’re putting I-1922 on the ballot because it’s what Washington’s communities and voters have told us they want.”