OLYMPIA – The Washington State Legislature voted Tuesday to establish harsher criminal penalties for drug possession, marking a huge step backwards in Washington’s fight against the ever-growing public health crises of substance use disorder and the opioid overdose epidemic.
The bill increases criminal penalties for drug possession to a gross misdemeanor, allows local jurisdictions to block harm reduction programs, and is projected to add 12,000 new cases to Washington's courts each year at an annual cost of $46.3 million. It will also leave individuals impacted by the criminal justice system with records that present barriers to employment, housing and more.
In early May, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that he would convene a special session focused on passing a new drug possession law. The legislature adjourned in April without having passed a law to replace the temporary, post-Blake penalties of a misdemeanor.
Following the State v. Blake decision in 2021, an expert advisory committee convened by the state’s Health Care Authority recommended decriminalization of possession and expansion of harm reduction programs that keep people alive. The legislature failed to follow the recommendations set forth by the advisory committee, instead choosing to leverage the fear and trauma of arrest and incarceration.
This special session offered the Legislature the possibility to move towards ending the War on Drugs by investing in proven public health responses. Instead, the Legislature reverted to punitive approaches that have been tried for over 50 years and have done nothing to prevent the flood of fentanyl into communities nationwide.
Alison Holcomb, ACLU-WA's director of political strategy, had this reaction:
"Lawmakers spoke in both chambers today in favor of using handcuffs and jail cells to punish those who use drugs, ignoring the lessons of the past 50 years. The data and evidence have never supported maintaining criminal penalties as a solution to the public-health crises of substance use disorder. That approach has and will continue to fail and will only funnel more people of color and poor people into our criminal legal system.
We cannot punish people into recovery. ACLU-WA remains staunchly in support of treating public health problems with public health solutions and will continue this work with our community partners and directly impacted people.”