The Washington state Legislature’s work this year isn’t finished as Gov. Jay Inslee called back state lawmakers for a special session that will begin May 16.
The governor announced last week that the Legislature would return with a focus on passing a new drug possession law. This past regular session ended April 23 without a “fix” for a Washington Supreme Court decision that decriminalized simple drug possession.
The split Washington State Supreme Court decision in early 2021 turned down existing law making drug possession a felony regardless of if a person knew they had drugs.
Later that year, the Legislature passed a temporary measure making simple possession a misdemeanor.
That law is set to expire July 1, after which local jurisdictions would be tasked with making their own decision on drug possession.
In the special session announcement, Inslee said his office had been meeting lawmakers from both parties and both chambers of the Legislature about reaching an agreement.
“Cities and counties are eager to see a statewide policy that balances accountability and treatment, and I believe we can produce a bipartisan bill that does just that,” Inslee said in the announcement.
Leaving drug possession laws to local governments could lead to “a confusing patchwork of policies, treatment options and penalties,” the announcement stated.
Though special sessions run up to 30 days per state law, the governor said the session could end before that, if lawmakers come up with a proposal they agree on, according to the announcement.
Following Inslee’s announcement, Senate Minority Leader John Braun said the governor’s decision was unexpected.
“The governor had indicated he would not call a special session until legislative leaders reached an agreement that is worth bringing in front of each chamber,” Braun said in a statement. “To be clear, we’re not to that point yet, although there have been productive bipartisan discussions over the past week.”
Braun, R-Centralia, said his fellow Republicans worked toward a new law incentivizing drug offenders to undergo treatment.
“All along, Republicans have insisted on a new drug-possession policy that truly works for the stakeholders — law enforcement, the criminal-justice system, and local governments,” Braun said. “They need more leverage to save lives, lift people out of the despair that goes with being addicted to drugs like fentanyl, and also reclaim our streets and sidewalks.”
The legislation initially moved forward to address the drug possession issue would fail on the last day when some Democrats joined Republicans. A conference committee report failed to pass the House 43-55.
All of North Clark County’s House members voted against the bill in its final form. Though the Senate had passed a bill supported by two of the county’s Republican senators, changes brought by the House kept the Senate from agreement, leading to the need for the conference committee, state Rep. Ed Orcutt said in a release explaining his vote. He said what legislation that went for a floor vote in the House was a “purely partisan version of the bill.
“I want people to get help. And I understand how hard that process can be,” Orcutt, R-Kalama, said. “But I don’t think the two versions of the bill voted on by the House would help people recover.“
State Rep. Greg Cheney said the drug possession fix “has been one of the most intense issues of the session.”
Through his nearly decade-long career as an attorney in Washington’s drug courts, he said the legislation that failed would not help break the “cycle of addiction, crime, and misery” those who end up with drug possession charges experience.
Though Democrats who voted against the bill felt the legislation was too harsh, Republicans felt it didn’t go far enough, Cheney, R-Battle Ground, said.
“In the end, this bill fails to recognize the good work being done by our state’s drug courts. It fails to recognize the need for individuals to accept some measure of responsibility for their actions,” Cheney said. “An acknowledgement of the problem must be part of the solution.”
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