During a one-day special session today, the Legislature approved a bill enhancing penalties for possession of hard drugs, but 4th District Sen. Mike Padden was among the “no” votes in the Senate.
Padden, the ranking Republican on the Senate Law and Justice Committee, believes the compromise version of Senate Bill 5536 is not strong enough to get drug offenders into and through treatment. That version was finalized by Senate and House negotiators yesterday after weeks of talks following the April 23 conclusion of the regular session.
“Although the bill passed by the Legislature today is an improvement over the terrible law that was passed in 2021 after the Supreme Court’s Blake ruling, I don’t think this ‘Blake fix’ really fixes our state’s growing problem with hard drugs,” said Padden, R-Spokane Valley. He noted Washington ranks very high nationally in fentanyl-overdose deaths per capita, and King County so far this year already has more drug-overdose deaths (524 as of May 15) than it did in all of 2020 (508).
“In order for drug offenders to really feel compelled to seek treatment and stay with it, we need to make it a felony again to possess the most dangerous drugs like fentanyl, meth and heroin. The threat of a felony conviction is more likely to persuade a drug offender to undergo treatment than a gross misdemeanor. While I’m glad we were able to pass some sort of law to increase penalties for these drugs, it doesn’t go far enough to be truly effective,” added Padden.
Under the proposal approved by the Legislature, people convicted for the first or second time for drug possession or public use after July 1 would face a penalty of up to 180 days in jail and up to $1,000 fine. For a third conviction, they would face up to 364 days in jail.
“The punishment under this bill is basically a hybrid between a gross misdemeanor and a misdemeanor. I don’t think that level of punishment will be an effective deterrent for drug offenders,” said Padden.
The compromise version of SB 5536 passed by the Legislature today can be viewed here. The measure now goes to Gov. Jay Inslee.
In February 2021, in the state Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Blake, justices ruled Washington’s felony drug-possession statute was unconstitutional because it criminalized possession even when a person did not knowingly have drugs. However, the Blake ruling did not lower the criminal penalty for illegally possessing hard drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor.
After the Blake decision, the Democrat-led Legislature in 2021 responded with a law that did reduce the criminal penalty for illegally possessing hard drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor. This law expires on July 1.
As a result of the expiring law, the Legislature this year needed to pass a new drug-possession law (known by some as the “Blake fix”) or else hard drugs literally would be legal in Washington. Without a new state law clarifying the penalties for possessing certain drugs, it is possible that cities and counties would have enacted their own drug-possession laws, creating inconsistent drug laws in which one city could have tough penalties on possession while a nearby city might not have any penalty at all. Some cities, like Everett, already have passed drug-possession ordinances in recent weeks.
Under SB 5536 as passed by the Legislature, cities and counties could make their own laws and ordinances to regulate harm-reduction services related to drug paraphernalia.