State lawmakers strike deal Monday to ensure drug possession remains a crime

State lawmakers announced an agreement Monday to toughen the penalty for drug possession and expand pathways into treatment and away from jail for those arrested.

The deal comes hours before legislators convene a special session and, barring another setback, will erase the threat that possession of illicit drugs becomes legal in July.

Late Monday, legislative leaders were still confirming that they had enough support among their members to pass the measure. A vote could come as soon as Tuesday.

“I won’t call what we have done a Blake ‘fix’ but it is certainly an ‘improvement’ and I believe it will save lives and make our communities safer for everyone. If I didn’t believe that, I would not be voting for it,” Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro Woolley, said in a text. Wagoner was the lead negotiator for his caucus.

Knowing possession, or use, of illegal drugs in a public place will be gross misdemeanors under the bill, according to a summary legislative staff released on Monday. Those arrested could face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine on their first offense.

Those arrested will be offered paths to avoid prosecution with pre-trial diversion but courts cannot grant that option without a prosecutor agreeing to it. People will also be able to have their convictions vacated, which would limit how drug possession incidents affect them going forward, both within the legal system and when it comes to securing jobs and housing.

The bill would allow cities and counties to enact their own laws allowing for distribution of needles and smoking equipment through their own public health “harm reduction” programs.

And the state Department of Health would need to notify “appropriate media” in a community of a proposed opioid treatment program but is not required to hold a public hearing on the licensing application. Cities and counties will be limited in the conditions they can impose on permits for such programs, which will be deemed essential public facilities under the agreement.


The legislation also earmarks a substantial sum of new money for bulking up the state’s network of treatment programs.

Twelve Democratic and Republican lawmakers, three from each of the four legislative caucuses, pieced together the deal in three weeks of negotiations. They briefed their colleagues Monday.

Gov. Jay Inslee met with caucus leaders Monday morning to gauge their progress. Speaking to reporters later in the day, he called the proposal “a very reasonable approach” and said he was assured by legislative leaders “there would be majority support in both chambers and it will be on a bipartisan basis.”

He said he would sign it “as soon as they bring it to my desk.”

The special session formally begins at 10 a.m. Tuesday. The Senate will arrive then with House members expected at noon.

Inslee called lawmakers back into session to address the effects of a 2021 state Supreme Court ruling known as the Blake decision.

It wiped away a longstanding law that made drug possession a felony. In response, lawmakers made possession a misdemeanor – but only until July 1 of this year – to buy themselves time to craft a long-term approach.

If they fail to act by July 1, possessing illegal drugs will become legal in Washington – except where a city or county has enacted its own laws on the subject.

Lawmakers wound up in their current political pickle when the House rejected an apparent compromise on the Blake legislation during the final day of the regular session on a 55-43 vote.

Fifteen Democrats dissented because it would have made possession a gross misdemeanor. They back a lesser penalty or none at all.

All 40 Republicans voted against the bill for other reasons. Some wanted a felony restored. Others opposed provisions overriding city and county power on enforcement of rules for drug paraphernalia and the approval of treatment centers. Many also felt provisions reduced the role of prosecutors in deciding who is offered pre-trial diversion into substance use disorder programs.

Wagoner voted for the original version that passed the Senate in early March. Had the House left it alone, he said, it “would have easily passed on its merits.”

“This whole process was completely unnecessary and created by decriminalization advocates,” he said.

The legislative vehicle in the special session will be Senate Bill 5536. Lawmakers will be voting on an amendment containing terms of the agreement. Additional amendments can be offered in the special session.

— By Jerry Cornfield, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

  1. So we are going to go around arresting people for possession even if they haven’t done anything wrong. The target offenders which I can agree need to be forced into treatment will be arrested let go within hours never show up for court the backlog of cases will be so big the charges will likely be dropped solving nothing. Good news more money for treatment. Bad news the good guy that has chronic pain and can’t get a prescription gets caught up in your attempt to stop the zombie apocalypse. Strict use laws are what we need not personal use amount possession laws. In conclusion this will increase taxation for the many help the few and criminalize people in chronic pain. This is a fail.

  2. Jim, as I understand the proposed law it only deals with public drug possession and use. The guy with chronic pain is unlikely to be arrested.

    1. Robert where is the person with chronic pain going to get medicine but from street dealers. Part of our problem is a result of persecution of pharmaceutical companies over legal prescribed medications, now it is nearly impossible to get those medications so what do people do they turn to the street drugs. I understand the problems that can arise from drug use even with legal drugs. Is it a coincidence that the explosion of fentanyl on the streets came as we took away access to legal drugs I see a correlation. We have a big problem largely self inflicted and our answer is this? Yes the zombies roaming our streets need forced help this doesn’t do that it is a bandaid at best and at worse clog our already overburdened justice system and help virtually nobody.

    1. Tracy, I don’t know much I admit. But I do know this. Almost every person I see in any film taken at a residence and business that is up to no good…THEY are not Black they are mainly Caucasian. Now this is here not in Seattle or other places I only know what I see here. So I will be the first to call that out right now! No Fail! Don’t worry. XO

  3. The whole problem is the concept of “legal” and “illegal” drugs. Until we get past the concept that some drugs (alcohol and now cannabis) are “sacred cows” and okay to possess and use openly but so called “hard drugs” are evil and immoral and not okay to posses and use openly nothing is going to change. The drug lords, gangs and pimps will continue to survive and prosper with a thriving black market available to them. We are trying to legislate sobriety and morality and that simply won’t work. Alcohol prohibition tells us all we need to know about what doesn’t work.

    Arrest people for actual crimes committed and make the punishments fit the crimes. A start would be strong laws and harsh sentences for littering which is anything from tossing used needles all over, putting tents in public spaces and leaving garbage and human waste in public spaces to throwing empty beer cans out of cars. The punishment would be serving in supervised road gangs cleaning up road right of ways, parks, and public spaces in general.

    1. Clinton,

      Don’t forget – the thriving underground economy supports the official economy – more crime means more money for the “legal” system – police, lawyers, judges, law schools. Gunshot victims support the “medical” and weapons industries

      And I seem to recall, was it the CIA that imported illegal drugs to supplement their income with the Iran-contras?

      Legalization – could also conceivably allow medical research

      I’m sure the list goes on…

  4. The right approach to all addiction (the product used is irrelevant) is that it is a medical problem and appropriate treatment or controlled use is the only solution. Everyone arrested for actual crimes associated with addictive behavior should always be given the choice of minimal housing (if needed), treatment and record expungement the first time around. Second and third arrests should be subject to Prosecutorial review. If we don’t take the profit motive out of street drugs, the associated problems (littering, theft, assault, prostitution, and murder) are never going to go away. Incarceration and probation should always involve some sort of public service related to the actual crimes committed. Addiction is currently the excuse for just letting people do whatever they want no matter who it hurts with a meaningless expensive and futile law enforcement war on drugs.

  5. Snohomish County has a public hearing Wednesday, May 17 on Ordinance 23-046, relating to use and possession of controlled or counterfeit substances or legend drugs.

    This hearing was established prior to state legislative efforts.

    Zoom Link:
    3000 Rockefeller Ave, 8th Floor, Jackson Board Room, Everett, WA

    My understanding is that public comment will be accepted via Zoom or in person. I’m not clear on how much county and city hands are tied on this issue based on the state effort. Concerned citizens (both pro and con) can express their concerns at this meeting with county officials.

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