House committee members amend Senate’s version of drug possession bill. Here’s what’s different

·3 min read
Courtesy/Tacoma Police Department

A bill to address the Washington state Supreme Court’s Blake decision on drug possession was amended Tuesday in the House Community Safety, Justice and Reentry Committee, tweaking the version of the legislation that previously cleared the Senate.

In State v. Blake, Supreme Court Justices ruled felony drug possession unconstitutional and removed any criminal penalties for drug possession. Under that decision, convictions were vacated and dismissed by an order from the court.

Lawmakers voted that same year to penalize possession charges with a misdemeanor and mandated two pre-arrest referrals for substance abuse by law enforcement officials, but that law will expire July 1.

So far, lawmakers can’t quite come to an agreement on what the permanent fix should look like.

Senate Bill 5536 passed the Senate on March 3 with a 28-21 vote. Republicans and Democrats were split in their votes, with both parties voting for and against the measure.

On Tuesday, the bill passed the House Community Safety, Justice and Reentry Committee with a 6-3 bipartisan vote.

While the Senate version of the bill would have treated drug possession as a gross misdemeanor, the amended version in the House committee would treat drug possession as a simple misdemeanor.

The amended legislation also adds public use of substances as a crime.

SB 5536 establishes pretrial diversion for possession of substances, and would require defendants who have been diagnosed with substance abuse disorder to complete treatment to have possession charges dismissed by a court.

The latest amended version of the bill eliminates escalating sentencing for those who don’t comply with treatment options, which is different from the version of the bill passed by the Senate.

Possession convictions can be automatically vacated under SB 5536 if an individual shows proof that they have completed a treatment program.

Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, chair of the House Community Safety, Justice and Reentry Committee, told the committee Tuesday that it was difficult for him to vote to continue using criminal penalties for a public health problem. Punitive approaches don’t deter drug use, he said.

“I’m hesitant to criminalize those who are suffering from behavioral health disorders and perhaps even a return to the egregious racial disparities of the War on Drugs,” Goodman said. “However, on balance, this bill builds out a behavioral health infrastructure to intervene in a much more effective and evidence-based fashion for those who are suffering from substance use disorder.”

Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, a ranking member of the committee, called it a “helpless bill.”

“I definitely feel like this is a small step forward from what we have today, which is ignoring them twice before we take action,” she said. “This is the beginning of a very long conversation, I hope. I think that there’s many, many unanswered questions in the bill before us. What happens when there’s no treatment available?

“There’s so many pieces in here that aren’t done yet and I hope that we can get there before the end of session, and not run it into interim, because, in the meantime, people are dying,” Mosbrucker added.

House lawmakers passed the new version of the legislation one day ahead of another cutoff date in the Legislature.

The last day for policy bills to pass out of committee was Wednesday, March 29, but bills in House fiscal committees, Senate Ways and Means, and Transportation committees will have until April 4 to pass out of those committees.

Because the bill was amended by House members after it cleared the Senate floor, the bill will have to be sent back to the Senate to concur on the amendments after the full House floor votes on the legislation.

If passed and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, the legislation would have multiple effective dates starting in July 2023.