Mill Creek has new drug law — it could be obsolete in days

The city council re-criminalized drug possession, while state lawmakers debate their own legislation.

MILL CREEK — As state lawmakers debate whether to recriminalize simple drug possession, the Mill Creek City Council has passed its own ordinance.

Within days of it taking effect, the city’s new law could become obsolete.

That’s because it could soon be overridden, should the state Legislature come up with its own solution that pre-empts local laws.

Mill Creek follows Marysville as the second city in Snohomish County to pass a local law in response to the state Supreme Court’s Blake decision. In the February decision, five justices found the state’s statute criminalizing drug possession as a felony was unconstitutional, because it didn’t require prosecutors to prove someone knowingly, intentionally possessed drugs. It was a curveball that has far-reaching implications for the criminal justice system.

The Mill Creek City Council passed its ordinance on Tuesday with a 4-1 vote, making it a gross misdemeanor to possess a controlled substance without a prescription. A violation is punishable by up to 364 days in jail and up to a $5,000 fine.

Mayor Pro Tem Stephanie Vignal was the lone no vote. Council members John Steckler and Benjamin Briles abstained.

Following the example of Marysville, the new law offers a simple fix by adding a requirement that a person must “knowingly” possess a drug, with intent to use it.

The ordinance was first brought forth by City Councilman Vince Cavaleri, who is also a Snohomish County sheriff’s deputy. He argued that public safety should be the city’s top priority.

“I’m asking you to support this legislation because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “There’s no downside to this. We’re not creating something new that didn’t exist before.”

Without citing crime statistics, Cavaleri pointed to Portland and Seattle as examples of what happens when city leaders permit drug use.

“They’re under siege with the criminal element,” he said. “The residents, they’re hostages.”

Vignal said she wasn’t opposed to criminalizing drug possession, but she was worried the council was rushing to make a law that the state may soon make obsolete.

“I want this body to craft policy that is going to solve problems and stand the test of time,” she said, “not be in a hurry to pass something tonight, for headlines, that may be irrelevant … by the next time we meet.”

The new ordinance won’t take effect until about April 24, after a public notice is published.

The last day of the Legislature’s 2021 regular session is April 25.

The state Senate passed a bill on Thursday that also makes the knowing possession of drugs a gross misdemeanor. That bill is now in the House. If signed into law, it would pre-empt local ordinances per the Uniform Controlled Substances Act.

Vignal suggested that the council table the discussion indefinitely, in anticipation of the Legislature’s decision. Her motion failed.

Steckler and Briles agreed with Vignal’s sentiment. In abstaining from the vote, they clarified that they also weren’t opposed to the ordinance itself.

“I’m not afraid to make a decision,” Steckler said. “I just think this is illogical to rush into this.”

In a previous city council meeting, Mill Creek Police Chief Jeffery Young said the drug possession law can be an important tool — not just to address crime, but also to introduce those experiencing addiction to services.

Councilman Mark Bond said he wanted to give police back that tool. He didn’t see a need to hold off for the Legislature.

“While we’re waiting, we can take some action,” Bond said. “This isn’t really that complicated.”

Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; Twitter: @zachariahtb.

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