A bill that would have formally decriminalized drugs in Washington state was destroyed in the Senate Thursday, and lawmakers approved a dramatically revised version that instead reinstates criminal penalties following a state Supreme Court ruling that overturned prohibition.
The action sets up a possible showdown with more progressive Democrats in the House of Representatives who have said they will not vote for legislation that returns to a criminal war on drugs.
Washington has been without a drug possession law since a divided state Supreme Court abruptly struck down in February after ruling that a limited part of the decades-old law was unconstitutional. Lawmakers have since been quick to address the decision, which has halted drug arrests and prosecutions across the state and released dozens of people incarcerated on drug possession charges, before the legislative session ends on the 25th. of April.
In the Senate floor Thursday night, a bill that would have originally made drug possession decriminalized was amended to make possession a felony misdemeanor, a crime punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of $ 5,000, a change that led to its main sponsor voting against the measure.
Before the court decision, drug possession was classified as a felony.
Senators approved the amended version of the bill, SB 5476, with a vote of 28–20–1. It then proceeds to the House, where it is scheduled for an initial hearing in the Appropriations Committee on Monday, with possible committee action scheduled for Wednesday, April 21.
Watch senators discuss drug sanctions legislation around 1:01:33 in the video below:
As amended, the bill passed by the Senate represents a moderate overhaul to Washington’s now-invalidated felony law against possession. It requires prosecutors to divert people on first- and second-time possession charges to evaluation and treatment programs, and allows the possibility of further diversions with the approval of a prosecutor.
“I believe this surprising amendment will help us move forward as we continue negotiations over the past 10 days with the agency on the path to a response that provides services, treatment and assistance to people struggling with substance use disorder.” Senator Jamie Pedersen (D), who introduced the amendment, said in full Senate.
The bill in its original form represented a more significant departure from the war on drugs. It would not have imposed penalties for possession of small amounts of “personal use” drugs, but would have referred people to substance use disorder evaluation and treatment services.
Some senators who initially supported SB 5476 eventually changed their vote after the misdemeanor amendment was adopted. The bill’s original sponsor, Sen. Manka Dhingra (D) said she could no longer support the bill.
“The way we are doing this, I am glad that there are diversion opportunities, but it does not have to be through the criminal justice system,” Dhingra said during the discussion in the room. “I understand that this is my bill, I understand that my name is there, but today I will vote no.”
Many senators who weighed in on the bill Thursday said it was important for the legislature to pass something before the session ends, given the huge impact of the February state Supreme Court decision, State v. Blake. In a statement released after the floor vote, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig (D) said that failing to pass a state law on drug possession “means a patchwork of local ordinances that will confuse residents of Washington and will not provide the same justice across the state. “
Generally speaking, it is understood that state drug laws prevail over those of Washington cities and counties. With the disappearance of the state law against possession, localities could establish their own laws and penalties, and some have already begun to do so.
“The bill we passed today is not the last word on the matter,” Billig said in a statement. “It’s a commitment that keeps this important legislation in motion so that we can fulfill our duty as representatives of the people of our entire state.”
Representatives in the House, however, have indicated a greater openness to leaving drug possession decriminalized in this session. On Thursday, lawmakers in favor of broader drug reform introduced a new bill, HB 1578, that would expand treatment and recovery services and reclassify low-level possession as a civil offense, punishable by a fine of up to $ 125 and without the possibility of jail. .
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Of all the measures currently in play in this session, the new bill is the one that most closely resembles the neighboring Oregon drug decriminalization measure passed by voters in November. But its way forward is uncertain: HB 1578 would need to pass both houses of the legislature in less than two weeks.
It is also unclear how the House will receive the Senate-approved bill, SB 5476, in its new form. The more progressive members of the Democratic caucus have said they will not vote for legislation reimposing criminal penalties for simple possession, but it is not certain that they can muster enough support to pass a decriminalization measure.
If House lawmakers amended the Senate bill before passing it, the legislation would have to go to a conference committee, where members of both houses would resolve differences in the two versions of the bills.
Earlier this year, prior to the Supreme Court decision, a House committee passed a separate bill, HB 1499, which would have ended criminal penalties for amounts of drugs for personal use and instead would have sent people for evaluation and treatment. It would also have significantly expanded state outreach and recovery programs for people with drug use disorders. That measure did not advance after missing a legislative deadline last month.
HB 1499, meanwhile, grew out of an effort to put a drug decriminalization initiative on the Washington ballot last year. Supporters swung to momentum through the legislature after pushing for a pause in their signature-gathering campaign after COVID-19 first broke out in the Seattle area early last year.
Proponents of the reform have noted that the state’s criminal enforcement of drug possession laws has had a strong bias against people of color, particularly the state’s black, brown, and indigenous communities.
In his remarks in the Senate, Dhingra echoed that point, arguing that Blake’s decision presents an opportunity for lawmakers to finally begin addressing those racial disparities.
“I will say that the Supreme Court gave us an opportunity,” he said, “an opportunity to really think about what we as a state and as a nation have been doing regarding the war on drugs, and to really think critically about the impact that this has had very, very specifically in the Brown and Black families. “
“The racial impact of our drug laws cannot be underestimated,” continued Dhingra. “When we take a look at mass incarceration, when we take a look at families with a single mother raising her children, when we take a look at parents who cannot find a job due to their criminal record, they cannot find one. housing, we can’t seek recovery, it all comes down to how we’ve been enforcing our drug laws. “
Representative Roger Goodman (D), the lead sponsor of the new House bill, HB 1578, which would make possession a civil offense, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday night. However, in an interview with Marijuana Moment last month, he called Blake’s decision “both a blessing and a curse.”
“It’s an opportunity for us to come up with a more effective approach that does less harm,” he said, “but we don’t have the opportunity to be deliberate and inclusive in discussions with stakeholders, so it’s not as well thought out – a proposed as it would be otherwise. It has to be a stopgap measure. “
Just five years ago, few state legislatures would have dreamed of letting drugs remain decriminalized after a court decision like Blake. Now attitudes are beginning to change.
“There is this phenomenon called discontinuous change,” Goodman told Marijuana Moment, “where nothing happens and nothing happens and nothing happens, and then the Berlin Wall falls. We are reaching that point in drug policy where it is a turning point. “
Oregon voters ended their ban on the possession of low-level drugs on the ballot during last November’s election, contributing to the national conversation.
In both Maine and Vermont, lawmakers also recently unveiled legislation last month to decriminalize small amounts of illegal drugs. Last month, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on legislation that would end criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of drugs and replace them with a $ 100 fine.
In New Jersey, meanwhile, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said last month that he has an “open mind” about decriminalizing all drugs.
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