Padden bill to increase penalty for drug possession receives committee hearing

The Senate Law and Justice Committee held a public hearing today on a bill introduced by 4th District Sen. Mike Padden that aims to reverse the alarming trend in fentanyl use and fentanyl-related deaths in Washington.

Padden’s measure, Senate Bill 5035, would make possession or use of illegal drugs like fentanyl, methamphetamine and heroin a class C felony, with opportunities for drug court participation.

“In 2021 the Democrat majority in the Senate passed Senate Bill 5476, which de facto decriminalized possession of hard drugs, such as fentanyl, meth and heroin,” said Padden, R-Spokane Valley. “It’s no wonder fatal drug overdoses are hitting record numbers in Washington. The Democrats’ law that decriminalized drugs has been an absolute and costly failure. We need to fix this crisis, and Senate Bill 5035 would help us do that, including a chance for offenders to go into drug diversion programs.”

SB 5035 is one of several proposals heard by the Senate Law and Justice Committee today that seek to provide a new legislative response to the state Supreme Court’s February 2021 decision in State v. Blake. The justices ruled Washington’s felony drug-possession statute was unconstitutional because it criminalized possession even when a person did not knowingly have drugs. SB 5476, which was passed by the Legislature two months after the high court handed down its decision, is a temporary fix that expires this summer.

“There is general agreement that the action taken by the Legislature in response to Blake did not work. Senate Bill 5476 expires this year, so we need to take new action this session. We need the proper leverage to get those people into treatment. A misdemeanor charge won’t compel them to get into treatment as much as a felony charge,” said Padden.

SB 5035 is scheduled to receive a vote in the Law and Justice Committee on Thursday.

According to the state Department of Health, 2,264 people in Washington died of a drug-related overdose in 2021, compared to 1,731 drug-overdose deaths in the state in 2020 and 1,259 in 2019.

Spokane resident Molly Cain signed up in support of SB 5035. Cain testified on Feb. 1 during the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Health Subcommittee legislative hearing on the fentanyl crisis. Part of Cain’s congressional testimony can be viewed here. Cain’s son, Carson, died of a fentanyl poisoning in 2020 at age 23.