The Washington State House Democratic caucus wants to make significant changes to the Senate’s drug possession bill, which seeks to increase criminal penalties while also offering diversion to treatment.

In an interview with the Stranger Thursday, State Representative Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland) said the title of the legislation is “broad enough for us to amend the bill pretty much any way we want.”

Passing a new drug possession law is a priority for the Legislature this session. After the Washington State Supreme Court ruled in State v. Blake that the state’s felony drug law was unconstitutional, lawmakers created a short-term drug possession misdemeanor in 2021. In addition to recriminalizing possession, the law directed cops to divert people to treatment at least twice before prosecutors could charge them. It expires in July. 

Under the bill proposed by the state Senate in early March, simple drug possession would increase from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor. A person convicted of drug possession who refuses substance use disorder treatment must be sentenced to a minimum of 21 days in jail and up to 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine.

If a person agrees to go to treatment for substance use disorder, then they can avoid jail time. The first time a person “willfully” abandons or shows a pattern of noncompliance with treatment, the court may use its discretion when imposing jail time. However, if the person fails a second time, then the court must impose a 21-day sentence. A third lapse means the person must spend 45 days in jail. 

Goodman called the bill egregious.

“The Senate bill looks a lot like the war on drugs all over again,” Goodman said. 

People seem to be pretending that prior to the stop gap law, everything was fine, Goodman said. But punishing what is at the core a substance abuse issue is a return to a failed policy that hasn’t worked in 50 years, he added.

Goodman chairs the House Community Safety, Justice, & Reentry Committee, which is where lawmakers will first examine the Senate bill. He scheduled a full committee hearing for March 20. 

Senator Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond), who voted against the bill in the Senate, said the mandatory minimum sentences included in the bill served little purpose apart from vengefulness.

“Real life is very different and shows up very differently than the structure of how that bill was written,” Dhingra told the Stranger Thursday.

Caleb Banta-Green, a research professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine’s Addictions, Drug and Alcohol Institute, said he thinks most people assume those with addiction are fine with it and having a good time, but statewide studies show 80% of Washingtonians who inject heroin want to stop or reduce their use. 

He argues that substance abuse disorders frustrates reduction efforts because they change a person’s brain chemistry on a fundamental level. “Punishment is not going to fix a brain chemistry issue… Additional jail time is not a logical response to a person not following through with treatment,” he said.

As written, the legislation would also reinforce a system that doesn’t even allow for the recognition of progress. The current court model requires people to go from using drugs to not using drugs, otherwise their urine analysis will show they’ve failed, Banta-Green said. But courts view people who want to reduce their drug use as simply noncompliant, even if they are reducing their use and improving their health and well-being. 

“This need to force people into treatment who don’t show ‘good faith’ or don’t try in their treatment is just so ignorant,” he continued. 

Rather than think of treatment, Banta-Green wants lawmakers to think about services and engagement

Another provision in the bill allows someone to ask the state to strike a conviction from their record if they show proof of treatment completion. But he thinks this idea, too, represents a narrow solution. 

He argues that completing one 30-day treatment regime doesn’t necessarily translate to improved skills and a move toward recovery. The idea that treatment will “cure” addiction is absurd, he said. People manage addiction, sometimes for their entire lives, and they need support in that. Making completion of treatment the goal for addressing substance abuse disorder alone is setting up the majority of people to fail, he said. 

“Which means, in this case, be incarcerated. And perhaps interrupt their recovery process while also increasing their risk of overdose,” Banta-Green added.