OLYMPIA, Wa. – Little more than two years after the landmark State v. Blake court decision, a bipartisan majority of state senators today approved legislation that would make possession and use of hard drugs a gross misdemeanor, and significantly restore the legal leverage that can compel people to seek and complete substance-use treatment.
“The Senate passed a similar bill in 2021 but faltered when negotiating a compromise with the House. The much-weaker law that resulted took our state down a disastrous path that has destroyed countless lives and caused great harm in many communities.
“While there is still room for improvement, the legislation passed today is actually better than the first Blake bill that came out of the Senate two years ago. Charging drug possession as a gross misdemeanor is the same, but this carries the added leverage of a minimum sentence and is more detailed about how treatment services would be provided.
“Let’s be clear, however, that while this is a more thoughtful and responsive approach, it absolutely does not justify the two years we were forced to wait to reach this point. The experiment with decriminalization has been a mistake all along, and many of us made that argument from the start. If the Senate had held firm on the gross-misdemeanor penalty in 2021, think of the pain and suffering that could have been prevented, and how the streets and rights-of-way in our communities might look different today. The better policy regarding treatment services could have been added later, as a stand-alone bill.
“SB 5536 was refined with amendments at every stop on the path to this vote – by one committee, then a second, and today on the floor of the Senate. This is how to deal with challenging policy questions – be open-minded and allow legislators to offer and talk through ideas for improvement. The priority now is to avoid a repeat of 2021, and make sure this good policy proposal doesn’t get weakened before it reaches the governor. We must do better this time.”
The Blake ruling, issued Feb. 25, 2021, found Washington’s felony drug-possession law to be unconstitutional. Republicans have consistently been critical of the Blake response adopted during the 2021 legislative session, which effectively decriminalized the possession and use of drugs like heroin and methamphetamine. It required first- and second-time offenders to be referred to treatment services instead of jail. Subsequent offenses could be charged only as a misdemeanor.