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.

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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; jcornfield@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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