House passes ‘Blake’ bill to enshrine drug possession as misdemeanor

It is at odds with the Senate version which had a harsher penalty. The two chambers will have a week to sort it out.

Logo for news use, for stories regarding Washington state government — Olympia, the Legislature and state agencies. No caption necessary. 20220331

OLYMPIA — Majority Democrats in the state House pushed through a far-reaching response to the Blake decision early Wednesday, restoring a misdemeanor penalty for drug possession and steering millions of dollars into assessing and treating those with substance use disorder who are arrested.

The House, on a 54-41 vote, passed an amended version of Senate Bill 5536 around 1:30 a.m. Fifty-one Democrats and three Republicans backed the bill.

“We can’t do what we’ve always done. This bill is a response to our communities’ need for us to take action,” said Rep. Jamila Taylor, D-Federal Way, author of the extensive substitute.

What emerged stands in sharp contrast with the Senate’s approach on what should be the long-term strategy, given the state Supreme Court’s ruling in 2021 that erased a law making simple drug possession a felony.

At that time, lawmakers agreed to make possession a misdemeanor but require cops refer people to treatment before arresting them. They set June 30 as the date for those changes to expire.

Senate Bill 5536 drafted by Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, is the legislative vehicle for figuring out what happens come July 1.

A month ago, the Senate, on a bipartisan 28-21 vote, approved a version making drug possession a gross misdemeanor, and building out the state’s drug treatment programs and services. One could avoid prosecution by completing a pretrial diversion program, and get a conviction for simple drug possession vacated by completing treatment.

House Democrats made changes, some significant. They made it a misdemeanor to possess and use drugs in a public place. Cops no longer have to refer someone rather than arrest them. But those arrested solely for possession must be given a shot at a pretrial diversion.

Under that approach, a person would be referred to a program, like the Recovery Navigator Program, where a “biopsychosocial assessment” would be performed.

Based on the result, the person could be referred to treatment and services or, if they are determined not to be in need of any services, be sentenced to up to 120 hours of community service, according to an analysis of the bill by House Democrats. Charges would be dropped if they substantially comply with treatment and services for six months or complete their community service.

Robinson, reached Wednesday afternoon, acknowledged a lot has changed since the bill left the Senate.

“We’re looking at it,” she said. “I suspect the answer is going to be a bipartisan approach.”

Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, said Tuesday that Republicans can’t support the House bill and a deal will need to be ironed out in a conference committee.

“Their far left is pulling the bill down to almost uselessness,” he said.

A coalition of Snohomish County leaders don’t like the House version either.

“The change in Washington’s drug possession laws has led to a variety of social problems that are ravaging our communities at unprecedented levels,” begins the statement from the Snohomish County Mayors and Business Leaders for Public Safety.

“To reverse this trend and to help those with substance use disorders find the treatment they need, a law that more effectively balances legal consequences and treatment is needed to reverse the impacts of the Blake decision,” it continues. “Regrettably, we do not see that happening with the changes that the House of Representatives has made to SB 5536.”

The debate early Wednesday centered on the best approach to getting those arrested who are suffering with addiction into treatment, and to make sure they stick with it. As lawmakers spoke, many revealed their path to recovery or shared their experience aiding parents, children, family members or friends battling with substance use disorder.

“People do not get better in jail. It is harsh. It is ineffective,” said Rep. Tarra Simmons, D-Bremerton, who struggled with addiction and served time in prison. The bill, she said, is about “building a system that has multiple pathways to recovery.”

Rep. Lauren Davis, D-Shoreline, who works in the field of addiction recovery, said substance use disorder is a chronic, progressive disease and must be treated with a chronic care model. The bill’s expansion of the recovery navigator program will provide stable, personal ties that people with addiction need to successfully manage their disease, she said.

“This disease is rooted in self-loathing. Shame is not the cure for addiction. It is the cause,” she said. “This legislation recognizes that recovery is born of hope and meaningful connection.”

Republicans argued a harsher penalty and potential jail time will provide incentive for people to stay on their treatment path. Without them, people arrested for using drugs on the street will choose a brief stay behind bars rather than pursuing any diversion options.

Rep. Carolyn Eslick, R-Sultan, the debate’s final speaker, spoke of a grandson fresh out of prison after a two-year stint on drug charges, and a niece who nearly died from a heroin overdose, and was now back on the street.

“I want to say yes to this but it isn’t enough,” Eslick said. “We have to be able to make it so uncomfortable for them that they will stay in their treatment and they will go to treatment. But this bill doesn’t do that.”

Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, the ranking Republican on the House Community Safety, Justice and Re-Entry Committee, expressed frustration House Democrats veered away from the approach endorsed in the Senate and by House Republicans.

“Washington’s experiment on legalizing hard drugs … in my opinion failed,” she said. “We’ve had two years of seeing more and more people on the sidewalks with needles in their arms. This bill leaves more questions and less answers unfortunately. There are too many places where you could fail or we’re setting people up to fail.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;; Twitter: @dospueblos.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

People look out onto Mountain Loop Mine from the second floor hallway of Fairmount Elementary on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Mining company ordered to stop work next to school south of Everett

After operating months without the right paperwork, OMA Construction applied for permits last week. The county found it still violates code.

Snohomish County Jail. (Sue Misao / Herald file)
Arlington woman arrested in 2005 case of killed baby in Arizona airport

Annie Sue Anderson, 51, has been held in the Snohomish County Jail since December. She’s facing extradition.

A Cessna 150 crashed north of Paine Field on Friday evening, Feb. 16, 2024, in Mukilteo, Washington. The pilot survived without serious injury. (Courtesy of Richard Newman.)
‘I’m stuck in the trees’: 911 call recounts plane crash near Paine Field

Asad Ali was coming in for a landing in a Cessna 150 when he crashed into woods south of Mukilteo. Then he called 911 — for 48 minutes.

The Nimbus Apartments are pictured on Wednesday, March 1, 2023, in downtown Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Snohomish County has the highest rent in the state. Could this bill help?

In one year, rent for the average two-bedroom apartment in Snohomish County went up 20%. A bill seeks to cap any increases at 7%.

A child gets some assistance dancing during Narrow Tarot’s set on the opening night of Fisherman’s Village on Thursday, May 18, 2023, at Lucky Dime in downtown Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Drive-By Truckers, Allen Stone headline 2024 Fisherman’s Village lineup

Big names and local legends alike are coming to downtown Everett for the music festival from May 16 to 18.

Sen. Patty Murray attends a meeting at the Everett Fire Department’s Station 1 on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Sen. Murray seeks aid for Snohomish County’s fentanyl, child care crises

The U.S. senator visited Everett to talk with local leaders on Thursday, making stops at the YMCA and a roundtable with the mayor.

Anthony Boggess
Arlington man sentenced for killing roommate who offered shelter

Anthony Boggess, 33, reported hearing the voices of “demons” the night he strangled James Thrower, 65.

Lake Serene in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. (U.S. Forest Service)
How will climate change affect you? New tool gives an educated guess

The Climate Vulnerability Tool outlines climate hazards in Snohomish County — and it may help direct resources.

A cliff above the Pilchuck River shows signs of erosion Friday, Feb. 9, 2024, in Lake Stevens, Washington. Lake Connor Park sits atop the cliff. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Hill erodes in Lake Connor Park, forcing residents of 8 lots to vacate

The park has just under 1,500 members east of Lake Stevens. The riverside hill usually loses 18 inches a year. But it was more this year.

Ken Florczak, president of the five-member board at Sherwood Village Mobile Home community on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024 in Mill Creek, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
How Mill Creek mobile home residents bought the land under their feet

At Sherwood Village, residents are now homeowners. They pay a bit more each month to keep developers from buying their property.

The I-5, Highway 529 and the BNSF railroad bridges cross over Union Slough as the main roadways for north and southbound traffic between Everett and Marysville. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
As 4-month closure looms, Highway 529 bridge to briefly close Sunday

The northbound section of the Snohomish River Bridge will be closed 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. The monthslong closure is slated for mid-May.

Ninth-grade program gets money, initiatives to get hearings

It’s day 47, here is what’s happening in the Legislature.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.