Washington State Passes Law Keeping Drug Possession a Crime

Emma Campbell | May 17, 2023
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Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a new law late Tuesday to keep drug possession illegal after a special session of the state legislature was convened to avoid a "crisis" that could have led to drugs being widely decriminalized across the state. 

After the state Supreme Court struck down a law that would make simple drug possession a felony in 2021, a two-year temporary measure - which kept drug possession a misdemeanor - was implemented statewide to buy legislators time to come up with a new policy. That time is running out, as the temporary measure is set to expire on July 1.

The special session of state legislature to address the development of a new law was slated for May 16, but both sessions that day were cancelled, according to the legislature website. Then last month, legislators shot down a bill that proposed to keep drug possession illegal while increasing addiction services. Liberal Democrats have largely rejected the criminalization of drugs, while more conservative Democrats and most Republicans in the state see jail time as a necessary motivator to get people struggling with addiction into treatment.

Proponents of decriminalizing possession of drugs often cite race as a factor, too, asserting that criminal penalties for drug violations disproportionately affect minorities and claiming that decriminalizing drugs will “advance racial equality.”

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According to the new law, drug possession will be classified as a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in jail - double the previous maximum - for the first two convictions, and/or a $1,000 fine. The law also provides about $44 million for treatment canters and programs while giving convicted drug criminals the option of enrolling in a treatment plan in exchange for the state dropping the charges.

Had state lawmakers not been able to come up with a solution, Washington would have become the second U.S. state, after Oregon, to decriminalize drug possession.

Oregon decriminalized possession of personal-use amounts of drugs in the fall of 2020, and so far, the results of this drastic shift are inconclusive at best. At the time of the measure’s implementation, Oregon ranked second highest overall in the nation for addiction rates and last for access to treatment for drug addiction. Even before the measure passed, Oregon residents seeking treatment for substance abuse struggled to find rehab centers that actually had space for them.

In the time since the Oregon measure was passed, $31 million has been funneled into treatment programs, but addiction and overdose death rates have risen. Treatment strategies and resources are only just beginning to get off the ground, but as fentanyl gets cheaper and deadlier, addictions and overdoses are expected to continue to increase.

“We decriminalized substances without ensuring that we had a robust treatment system,” Reginald Richardson Sr., executive director of Oregon’s Drug and Alcohol Policy Commission, told the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

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