As Rich Smith pointed out, Washington state decided to take a step backward over the weekend when its Legislature passed a law that would recriminalize simple drug possession for the next two years. The state's Supreme Court had decriminalized this pretty normal part of daily life back in February for all the right reasons: the law was unconstitutionally unfair, and its penalty was too cruel. This was called the Blake decision.
But just when 50 years of failed drug-regulation policy seemed to be on its last legs in this state, many politicians in the Democratically controlled Legislature came to conclude that they should not be up with the times. And so they jumped on the opportunity to scale back the Supreme Court decision. The upshot? We now basically have a situation that permits local governments to decide if they want to prosecute simple drug possession as a misdemeanor or not. (Those convicted of the minor offense face losing three months of life to hard time.).
I want to make two points in this post.
For one, recriminalizing drug possession returns work and power back to the police, an institution that has long left its halcyon days. Secondly, because of the general loosey-goosey-ness of the new watered-down law, left-leaning city governments will likely stick with the Supreme Court's decision, while those leaning to the right will adopt all "crime-fighting" tools and impose them to the fullest extent possible. Let's look at what this all means.
Statement on criminal penalties for simple drug possession: https://t.co/YfX3RoaCDn #waleg pic.twitter.com/17mL8qiYaQ
— Washington State Attorney General (@AGOWA) April 20, 2021
Let's begin with this paragraph in a February 25, Seattle Times article, "Washington Supreme Court strikes down law that makes unintentional possession of drugs a crime":
The court’s decision had immediate effect: The Seattle Police Department announced Thursday that its officers would no longer detain or arrest people, or confiscate drugs, solely under the simple possession law.
If you do not recognize the importance of this shift in policing policy, then I ask—with the exact same consternation expressed by Jaykae in Skepta's "That's Not Me" (All-Star Remix)—"Where have you been?"
There are two ways of dealing with policing at this point in American history. One way is to deeply defund the institution (which is an internal solution), and the other is decriminalization (which is an external solution). The former, to me at least, seems to be, politically speaking, a long shot. However, the latter, which basically gives the police less to do in our world, has serious political potential, as exemplified by the legalization of pot.
What the decriminalization of simple drug possession offered right off the bat was a sharp reduction of interactions between the public and an institution that has clearly absorbed the racist poisons of its own society and that cannot at this moment be purged of them. This was the clear benefit of the direction taken by the Supreme Court. If the path to an encounter is not presented to cops, whose escalation speedometer has been frequently seen to leap from 0 to 100 in an instant, then lives will surely be saved.
But there is more. The city and county attorneys say the new law relies on cities to decide if they will go with the Supreme Court or the Senate. If a city takes the path of the Court, which will certainly be the case with Seattle, then it will have the reputation of attracting criminals or encouraging criminal activities—all bad for business. Places that go the way of the Senate, however, which will certainly be the case for Auburn, a city that recently criminalized homelessness, will look like they are tough on crime and pro-business.
The upshot? The dumb "Seattle is dying" story will feel certain that it has more to say. We will hear all about it over and over again, even as we read stories about Apple's "plans to double current workforce" in this dying and dying city.