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Washington State News

Gross-Misdemeanor-For-Treatment Bill Sparks Contention in Washington Senate

Jeremy Lott | The Center Square

(The Center Square) – After a contentious floor fight, the Washington state Senate has passed legislation being touted by many Democratic senators as a permanent fix for the Washington Supreme Court’s Blake decision, which had decriminalized the possession of most drugs.

The temporary fix the Legislature passed in 2021 made drug possession a simple misdemeanor. It is set to sunset July 1.

The proposed permanent replacement had two aspects to it. Senate Bill 5536 would make possession a gross misdemeanor. It would also encourage treatment for those charged with possession through a pretrial diversion program.

Treatment would be a way drug users could have their records expunged.

That gross-misdemeanor-for-treatment bargain survived several rounds of voting on floor amendments Friday night by more progressive members of the majority Democratic caucus.

The final bill passed 28-21 with 14 Republicans and 14 Democrats voting for it.

A majority of the Democratic caucus of 29, 15 state senators, voted against it, including several of the bill’s sponsors.

They were joined by six Republican nays, some of whom may have objected to the bill’s gun control-related amendments.

One amendment that was adopted would have the stated effect of “Requir[ing] the court to sign an order of ineligibility to possess firearms if the required substance use disorder assessment filed with the court indicates the individual has a substance use disorder.”

An amendment to remove “the mandatory probation sanction scheme related to individuals convicted of simple possession who willfully abandon or demonstrate a consistent failure to comply with the recommended treatment” was withdrawn.

In contrast, an amendment “Requir[ing] that individuals substantially comply, rather than meaningfully engage, with recommended treatment or services in order to successfully complete pretrial diversion,” was adopted.

An amendment to classify fentanyl possession as a class-c felony was defeated and an amendment to introduce a three strikes scheme to pre-trial diversions was withdrawn.

An amendment requiring mandatory minimum sentences of 45 days in jail for those drug users “who refuse to comply with treatment as a condition of probation” was pulled from consideration.

“By working to address the root causes of substance use disorder and provide necessary support and resources to people in need, we can promote long-term recovery, reduce the likelihood of future criminal behavior and ultimately build healthier communities,” said the bill’s primary sponsor, state Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, in a statement after the Senate passed it.

A partial fiscal note predicted the bill would cost the state government about $3 million in the current 2023-2025 biennium.

The bill now goes to the state House for consideration.