After state Legislature fails to address drug possession laws, Olson says she’s working on local ordinance

Councilmember Vivian Olson

Just prior to the close of the 2023 session Sunday, the Washington State Legislature failed to pass a law aimed at responding to the state Supreme Court’s Blake decision about drug possession laws. In response, Edmonds City Councilmember Vivian Olson said Tuesday she is working to put together an Edmonds-specific ordinance aimed at addressing the issue.

According to The Seattle Times, without further state legislative action — such as a special session — Washington’s drug possession law will expire July 1, meaning there will be no penalty in state law and leaving cities free to adopt local ordinances.

The court’s 2021 Blake decision invalidated the state’s felony drug possession statute as unconstitutional. That year, in response, lawmakers passed a measure that decriminalized nearly all drug possession in Washington state.

Legislators and Gov. Jay Inslee had stated that finding a permanent fix for the issue was a high priority in the 2023 session. The Seattle Times reported that on Saturday, April 22, negotiators “announced a compromise deal that would make drug possession a gross misdemeanor while appropriating millions toward treatment, housing and support for people with substance use disorder.”

That measure, however, failed to garner enough votes Sunday night, with no House Republicans and 15 Democrats opposing, The Times said.

In addition, the Snohomish County Mayors and Business Leaders for Public Safety coalition that had been formed last fall to advocate for public safety legislation — including a fix for the Blake decision — sent out a press release Sunday stating their opposition to the compromise. In a statement, the group — which includes the mayors of Edmonds, Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace — said that the bill, in its present form, “would do more harm than good in addressing drug use in our communities, and we cannot support it going forward.”

Edmonds City Councilmember Olson said she is hopes to introduce a local drug possession ordinance during the council’s May 9 Public Safety-Planning-Human Services-Personnel committee meeting.

“This should be a relatively short turnaround as neighboring cities have already done the work,” Olson said.

The Lynnwood City Council in February approved an ordinance that will allow police to arrest individuals using illegal drugs such as fentanyl and methamphetamine in public. The bill also prohibits disposing of drugs and drug paraphernalia on the ground or in bodies of water.

In addition, after the state Legislature’s failure to act, Snohomish County Councilmember Nate Nehring announced Sunday that he will be introducing an ordinance to outlaw drug possession in Snohomish County.

“Addressing the Blake decision and the issue of drug possession was one of the most important tasks of the legislature this year,” Nehring said. “While there were legislators from both sides working in good faith, ultimately an agreement could not be reached. This is unfortunate but opens the door for counties and cities to address this issue at the local level.

“I look forward to working with my colleagues at Snohomish County to adopt reasonable regulations which lead with compassion and emphasize treatment while also holding individuals accountable for their actions,” Nehring continued.

When asked if such county legislation would apply only to unincorporated areas or would be effective countywide, Nehring aide Russell Wilta said that the councilmember’s office is “consulting with the legal team on the question of scope (unincorporated versus incorporated).” Nehring “would prefer to have an approach that covers both incorporated and unincorporated Snohomish County but we need to see where our authority is,” Wilta added.

The Snohomish County mayors group said in a statement issued Tuesday that they support “Snohomish County leaders and their efforts to provide a countywide model for local governments, several of which have either enacted or are in the process of enacting their own drug possession policies.

“As this group stated Sunday night, we had hoped the Legislature would produce meaningful changes to our state drug possession laws and provide law enforcement and prosecutors the mechanisms they need to address the drug issues that are consuming our communities,” the statement continued. “Despite the bipartisan efforts of Snohomish County legislators, led by Sen. June Robinson, that did not materialize before session concluded. 

“We recognize that a special legislative session may be called to reconsider this issue before the state’s current statute expires at midnight on June 30, and we hope that will result in a balanced proposal similar to what passed the senate. In the meantime, local jurisdictions will need to enact ordinances that meet the needs of their local communities,” the statement said.

— By Teresa Wippel

  1. While Olympia’s inability to find appropriate and reasonable compromise in the recently finished session is frustrating, I am encouraged at Snohomish county Councilmember Nehring and Edmonds Councilmember Olson’s efforts to provide local ordinances to address this growing problem.

    I have very little hope that a Special Session in Olympia will result in a good compromise law. That said, it is our best option and I support it.

    Local county and city ordinances are the next best thing, and also the best “test bed” that a future legislative session in Olympia can draw upon to eliminate the patchwork that will result in local efforts.
    I will be closely watching as this issue evolves.

    A huge “Thank you” to My Edmonds News editor Teresa Wippel for keeping this issue on the front burner.

  2. Not a fan of possession laws you can have alcohol and marijuana. Personal use amounts should not be a crime. I could support public use laws like driving under the influence. If your use causes you to make bad decisions then charge for those. Wandering around like a zombie in the middle of the road get arrested and get charged with public intoxication. Get caught stealing get arrested for that. Using on the bus gets you arrested for public endangerment. Offering treatment in lew of jail is fine. But getting jacked up for just having a pill in your pocket doesn’t seem right.

  3. ” getting jacked up for just having a pill in your pocket” ignores the obvious fact that not all pills are the same. Have an aspirin pill or a syringe of insulin doesn’t compare with having a syringe of heroin or a fentanyl pill. Ignoring those facts makes any attempt to understand and deal with the problem difficult or maybe impossible. It’s been generally agreed that addiction is a disease; it should be understood and treated that way not minimized.

    1. Gerard I have to disagree not everyone that uses is a addict our society has gone from locking up a whole generation of young people over crack cocaine to allowing open air drug use. As a society are we going to tolerate recreational use seems so after all pot is legal and use of other drugs has been common place for many years now. Here is a idea arrest for public use like the old days of no drinking in public.

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