Pass compromise bill on illicit drug possession

It appears the state Legislature will indeed beat its July deadline to come up with a compromise bill on how to adjudicate illicit drug possession.

Ever since lawmakers came up with a stopgap law that made simple drug possession a misdemeanor in response to the Washington Supreme Court striking down the state’s felony drug-possession law as unconstitutional in State v. Blake, lawmakers from both parties have spent hours toiling over the issue.

The Republican approach, informed by law enforcement, and the Democrats’ plan, with input from substance abuse experts and law enforcement, have been forged together with the results being a bill that seems sensible, viable and effective. It would, among other things, treat simple drug possession as a gross misdemeanor instead of a misdemeanor. The difference? Potentially, more jail time and higher fines. But the compromise bill goes beyond just defining penalties. 

Senate Bill 5536, now being debated in the House, “encourages” police to offer drug treatment to suspects and mandates treatment for convictions with possible jail time, depending on compliance. If there’s a second conviction there is a requirement to do treatment, but if one refuses treatment a jail sentence of 21 days up to one year can be imposed; the same is true for a third conviction, but time in jail goes up to at least 45 days. Along the judicial process, defendants would be offered treatment instead of a trial. The bill requires courts to vacate convictions for people who complete treatment.

In essence, it treats those who repeatedly are caught with small amounts of illegal drugs as a mental health or addiction problem, not a crime.

Yet, there’s also consequences for repeatedly violating the law: jail. Thankfully, the bill allows for those professionally trained in assessing drug use and addiction to recommend the type of treatment.

If passed by the House, as it should be, and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, the law doesn’t stop at policing drug users. The bill calls for more funding for the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program and other diversion programs.

Under the stopgap law, police and prosecutors are encouraged to refer those arrested the first and second times to treatment or assessment, and aren’t required to offer treatment for subsequent arrests, hence the relatively hands-off approach over the last two years. Under the compromise bill, law enforcement can approach and engage with those openly using drugs, a scene that often shocks visitors to downtown Seattle and frustrates business owners, downtown workers and residents. But more importantly, the lax approach has caused distress to the loved ones of those who have found the streets and public transportation to be a haven to enable their addiction.

In an era when compromise and bipartisanship is a rarity, this time, middle-line Republicans and Democrats got it right. Hopefully they can keep that momentum in the waning weeks of the session and pass a sensible bill that rightly focuses on the humanity of the drug epidemic, offering help, wrapped in accountability and hope.

Editor’s note: This editorial has been clarified to include that under Senate Bill 5536 there is a requirement for those convicted of drug possession to undergo treatment, but if one refuses treatment a jail sentence can be imposed.

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