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