Washington at risk of decriminalizing drug possession, even deadly fentanyl

 May 4, 2023

Washington Governor Jay Inslee (D), who recently announced he would not seek re-election in 2024, said he would call for a special session of the state legislature after it recently failed to pass a law decriminalizing drug possession, including possession of deadly fentanyl.

“My office and I have been meeting with legislators from all four caucuses, and I am very optimistic about reaching an agreement that can pass both chambers,” Inslee said in a statement. “Cities and counties are eager to see a statewide policy that balances accountability and treatment, and I believe we can produce a bipartisan bill that does just that. Details are still being negotiated, but caucus leaders share the desire to pass a bill. I believe that starting the clock on May 16 will put us on a path to getting the job done this month.”

A 2021 state Supreme Court decision struck down the state's current drug laws as unconstitutional, which has led police to stop arresting people for possession of illegal drugs.

The court found that “attaching the harsh penalties of felony conviction, lengthy imprisonment, stigma, and the many collateral consequences that accompany every felony drug conviction to entirely innocent and passive conduct exceeds the legislature’s powers,” according to the ruling in State V. Blake.

New bill on drug possession failed to pass

A temporary law was put in place after the ruling to make possession of small amounts of drugs a misdemeanor, but that law is set to expire in July.

If nothing takes its place, all drug possession will be decriminalized in the state, similar to its southern neighbor, Oregon.

Senate bill 5536, which would have made drug possession a gross misdemeanor carrying a fine of up to $5,000 and one year in jail, did not pass the legislature on April 23.

One concern is that the possession of fentanyl, which has caused a rising number of fatal overdoses in recent years, would not be illegal if the law expires in July without any replacement.

No penalty for fentanyl

Fentanyl overdoses have seen nearly a four-fold increase just since 2016. Then, the rate was 6 per 100,000 people, and in 2021 it was 22 per 100,000.

It doesn't seem right that it would be legal to possess this deadly drug and potentially cause someone to overdose on it.

The Republican minority in the state legislature did not think the Senate bill went far enough and wants to see stronger penalties for possession.

“House Republicans remain committed to passing statewide legislation that provides opportunities for those who are willing to undergo treatment and accountability for those who aren't,” ranking Minority Leader Drew Stokesbary said in a press release. “However, we will not support a bill that falls short of either of these goals and simultaneously prevents local governments from enacting their own solutions.”

More dangerous

Several states have considered legalizing marijuana and lessening penalties for having other types of drugs, but fentanyl has shown up in other drugs at lethal levels, making drug use far more dangerous than it ever used to be.

Many of the overdose victims did not know that they were taking fentanyl or that there were lethal levels of the substance in their drugs.

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