OLYMPIA – While the majority of the state Legislature is in agreement that drug laws must be changed, its members are deeply divided as to how that should be done.
Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, introduced legislation to address the issue in response to a recent state Supreme Court decision striking down Washington’s possession laws. However, when her bill passed through the Senate floor on April 15, she voted nay.
“This being the default, treatment through the criminal justice system continuing to be our status quo, for me is problematic,” Dhingra said during a Zoom press conference on April 16.
The Supreme Court decision, known as State v. Blake, deemed Washington’s drug possession statute unconstitutional, with the majority of the court ruling that the harsh penalties of the felony conviction violate due process guarantees in instances where the drug possession may have been unintentional. Lawmakers are tasked with coming up with a fix in the waning session, which is scheduled to end April 25.
Dhingra’s original bill, Senate Bill 5476, would have allowed law enforcement to refer those with small amounts of illegal drugs to treatment without any penalty, while banning public use and possession for minors. In her floor speech and during last Friday’s press conference, she emphasized the importance of people being able to get access to treatment outside the criminal justice system.
“What we know is brown and Black families continue to be disproportionately affected,” Dhingra said.
During the Senate floor vote, amendments added made it so personal possession would instead be dropped from a felony to a gross misdemeanor. A striker amendment from Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, removed what Dhingra felt was a key expiration date that would have required the Legislature come back in two years to re-evaluate the system based on a work group’s report and make a more permanent solution that focuses on treatment.
SB 5476 passed in a 28-20 vote, with several of its original co-sponsors joining Dhingra in opposition. The House Appropriations committee is scheduled to vote on the bill on April 21, but the results were not available by press time.
Fellow 45th district legislator, Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, introduced a bill on April 15 to address the Blake decision that completely focuses on treatment.
“Decades of putting people in jail has clearly not worked as we have compounded the problem of substance use disorder by needlessly criminalizing people, especially in communities of color,” Goodman said in a statement.
His bill had not been scheduled for a hearing as of Monday.
Dhingra is still optimistic that something will be passed soon, and although the Senate votes were divided, her bill still passed with bipartisan support. She said the majority of lawmakers have already shown a desire to provide more access to treatment as well.
“Regardless of what happens with the bill, what format it’s in,” Dhingra said, “that commitment to ensuring that we are wrapping up our treatment and our services is absolutely there.”