Comment: After state failure, county must act on drug law

The Legislature may still find a ‘Blake’ fix, but the county must pass an ordinance before July 1.

By Nate Nehring and Jared Mead / For The Herald

The state Legislature’s inability to find compromise on the “Blake fix” has put local governments in a difficult position, and is a clear example of why we need more leaders in government who are committed to finding common ground. While there were several members of the Legislature who worked in good faith to find a solution, ultimately there were too few to get a deal done.

As a consequence of the 2021 state Supreme Court ruling known as the “Blake decision” and subsequent legislative inaction, as of July 1, all drugs — including fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine — will become legal by default here in Washington state. And while a small minority of policy makers may believe this to be a good idea, the vast majority of people across the political spectrum know this will be disastrous.

With new, more dangerous drugs such as fentanyl and “tranq” ravaging our communities and taking the lives of our loved ones, now is not the time for elected leaders to retreat into our partisan corners. Instead, we must rise to the occasion and engage each other in good faith efforts to better understand differing perspectives and find a workable solution in the best interests of the residents we serve.

Throughout the 2023 legislative session, both of us followed with interest the subject of drug addiction and potential long-term solutions to that issue. As county council members, we have also had in the back of our minds the possibility that in the unlikely event the Legislature failed to act on Blake, the responsibility would fall on local governments to act. We have spent time debating varying perspectives and discussing potential solutions with one another and have both come a long way from our original partisan positions on the issue.

We both agree that harsh extended jail sentences with exorbitant fines for people who are struggling through drug addiction and mental health issues are not an adequate long-term solution. It is far more beneficial for the individual struggling and cost-effective for the broader community to prioritize treatment over jail. There have been many success stories of individuals who have completed treatment and turned their lives around for the better; being reunited with their families, earning gainful employment, and becoming a productive member of society.

On the other hand, we also agree that legalizing deadly drugs such as fentanyl, heroin and meth will only lead to greater adverse impacts such as crime in our communities as well as increased deaths from overdose among individuals battling addiction. The penalties associated with outlawing drug possession and use can serve as a key motivator for individuals to seek treatment and turn their lives around for the better. Using these points of agreement as sideboards, we have co-sponsored a local ordinance with the hope of getting us on the right track here in Snohomish County.

The message from government, whether state or local, to the communities we serve must be clear: the open-air drug abuse on our streets, needles in our parks, and tragically high rate of overdose deaths are unacceptable and must change. The inherent dignity of every person battling addiction should compel us to envision a different society; one where living on the streets awaiting death by overdose is not an option and where clear pathways toward recovery are readily available.

The ideal solution to this difficult issue ought to come from the state Legislature, because that is the only body of government with the resources necessary to fund the mental health and substance abuse services and avoid a patchwork of local laws in different jurisdictions throughout the state.

For that reason, we believe it is paramount that the Legislature go back to work through a special session and pass a bill which combines the criminalization of drug possession as a gross misdemeanor (the stick) with a historic and robust investment in voluntary and involuntary treatment services to be used as an alternative to jail (the carrot).

This issue requires immediate attention and we cannot afford to wait. While we implore the Legislature to take meaningful action on this issue, we will move forward with our local proposal to outlaw dangerous drugs and prioritize treatment options here in Snohomish County.

Nate Nehring and Jared Mead are Snohomish County Council members representing Council Districts 1 and 4, respectively. Nehring is a Republican. Mead is a Democrat.

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