If they did nothing else this year, state lawmakers desperately wanted to pass a law to permanently criminalize drugs. But in the last few hours on the last night of session, the “compromise” bill to reboot the drug war—Senate Bill 5536—failed, setting up a chaotic (but kinda fun) situation that prompted Governor Jay Inslee to call for everyone to reach a solution before July 1, when the current law governing drug possession expires.
If they don’t pass a bill in a special session before that day, then the state would effectively decriminalize drugs, leaving cities and counties to pass their own drug possession laws.
So, uh, what happened?
In part, the ACLU of Washington and conservative officials happened.
Neither group liked the deal that House and Senate Democrats struck on Saturday. In brief, the "compromise" bill would have increased the penalty for knowingly possessing drugs from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor, i.e. 90 days in jail vs 364 days in jail, respectively.
The proposal also created a brand new gross misdemeanor for public drug use (which is fucked up), decriminalized drug paraphernalia (partly to help harm-reduction strategies), and set aside millions to fund more treatment options, expand pre-trial diversion programs, give municipal and district courts more money to handle the caseloads, speed up drug testing, increase reimbursement rates to pay treatment professionals more, and other stuff like that.
Before the House took up the vote on that “compromise,” a bunch of Snohomish County mayors urged lawmakers to vote ‘no.’ In a letter, the “coalition” said they wanted to outlaw harm-reduction strategies and use the threat of longer jail sentences to coerce people into treatment.
The cops seem pumped about a 'no' vote, too. In a press release from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, Executive Director Steven D. Strachan said, “Local governments will [now] have the ability to enact policies and ordinances for their communities to break the cycle of drug abuse, provide help to individuals in need, and take back our public spaces.”
A little later on Sunday afternoon, former Seattle City Council President and current ACLU Legislative Director M. Lorena González sent out an email also urging lawmakers to vote ‘no,’ though her reasons were much better.
The ACLU argued that the Legislature should pass the funding for diversion programs and behavioral health care systems separately, and then figure out the crimes and penalties next year.
Since the state prevents cities from levying criminal penalties higher than a gross misdemeanor anyway, she reasoned, then allowing some cities to decriminalize or pass misdemeanors instead would reduce harm. “While we do not favor a patchwork of local laws, establishing the harshest penalty available in every county, city and town across Washington will produce irreversible harm to thousands of people,” she wrote.
I might also point out, as Ashley reported last week, that lawmakers primarily wanted the harsher penalty not because they thought it would help people but because they thought it would help with logistics. That’s how little some of these people care about restricting the liberty of human beings:
Love Washington politicians arguing that we should punish people more harshly for carrying drugs not because we think it helps them but because the state is slow at analyzing drugs #waleg https://t.co/xbUqT7mMzo pic.twitter.com/b9jSY6KYjb— Rich Smith (@richsssmith) April 21, 2023
Anyhow, the call to action from the ACLU probably helped, but it wasn’t the whole story. Over the phone on Sunday afternoon, House Rep. Roger Goodman, who led the House on the bill as chair of the chamber’s Law & Justice Committee, said the gross misdemeanor sparked a “revolt” in the caucus on Friday. A large faction of progressives—mostly from Seattle—felt as if the body hadn’t been listening to communities of color on this issue. “We’ll see what happens with the vote tonight,” he said with a nervous laugh.
During the debate on the bill Sunday night, those progressive Democrats made their displeasure known, Republicans lamented the lack of harsher penalties, and conservative Democrats begged the body to reboot the drug war, claiming the bill took a public health approach because they attached some funding for behavioral health care to it—funding that they could have appropriated in the operating budget. In a melodramatic gesture, House Speaker Laurie Jinkins even held open the final vote for a long time, in case any of the progressives who voted down the bill decided they wanted to eject their own spines from their bodies, but that didn’t happen. The bill failed, 43 to 55.
The Democrats who stood strong include Reps. Emily Alvarado, Jessica Bateman, Liz Berry, Frank Chopp, Beth Doglio, Daria Farivar, Mia Gregerson, Nicole Macri, Sharlett Mena, Melanie Morgan, Julia Reed, Kristine Reeves, Sharon Tomiko Santos, Tara Simmons, and Chipalo Street.
Now, there will be intense emails and phone calls. Horses will be traded. Conservative municipalities will make a big show of passing gross misdemeanors for possession and public drug use. (They already are, and have.) And eventually, sometime before July 1, state lawmakers may return for a day to pass a bill that will re-criminalize drugs. For his part, Governor Inslee said wants to criminalize drugs, but he’ll sign a gross misdemeanor bill or a misdemeanor bill. That gives progressives no reason to back down.