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Blue state lawmakers pass drug possession bill in rush to avoid decriminalization deadline

Washington lawmakers settled on a compromise drug possession bill, avoiding a July 1 deadline that would have decriminalized hard drugs in the northwest state.

Lawmakers in Washington state quickly passed a compromise drug possession law Tuesday, avoiding automatic decriminalization.

"This bill is not designed to fill our jails, it’s designed to fill our treatment centers," Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, said in a statement. "And the investments we’re making will create treatment resources in small townships and big cities. This is a statewide solution to a statewide problem."


After the Washington Supreme Court struck down a felony drug possession law in 2021, state legislators adopted a temporary misdemeanor ban. But it would have expired July 1, essentially decriminalizing possession of hard drugs like meth, heroin and fentanyl.

Legislators failed to agree on a new drug law during the regular session, so Inslee called them back for a special session that ended hours after it began.

The compromise makes drug use and knowing possession a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in jail, a $1,000 fine, or both. Repeat offenders can be sentenced to a year in jail, though prosecutors are encouraged to divert defendants to treatment or similar recovery services.


"The human suffering due to substance abuse has been a generational issue," Republican state Rep. Peter Abbarno said in a speech on the House floor.

Abbarno said he supports the bill because it respects local values, holds repeat offenders accountable and creates "off-ramps" for addicts who want treatment.

"The work really begins today to make sure this is implemented in a way that is successful and that we measure that success by the people that we lift out of poverty, lift out of addiction and help get them on a path for success," he said.

SB 5536 also directs around $44 million for services including crisis centers, mobile methadone units, non-police medical response teams and short-term housing for people with substance-use disorders

Both chambers passed SB 5536 on Tuesday and Inslee signed it into law the same day. 

City and county governments across the state have proposed and implemented local ordinances targeting drug use, often in public, as lawmakers negotiated a permanent solution.

Under the new law, local governments have limited ability to pass their own ordinances if they are harsher than the state law. For example, they cannot ban drug paraphernalia which is now a civil infraction.

But cities and counties can regulate harm reduction programs and recovery homes.

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