SPOKANE — Should drug possession in Washington be a felony? Or should the crime be treated less seriously by making it a misdemeanor while funneling adequate funds to drug recovery efforts?
Answers were offered last week in Spokane during a meeting of local police, lawmakers and drug treatment workers.
The discussion is expected to be one of many across Washington before the Legislature convenes in January.
"Creating a new and permanent law related to drug possession will be one of the most significant issues we consider in the 2023 legislative session," said Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane.
Last year, the Washington Supreme Court ruled the state's felony drug possession law was unconstitutional and invalidated past felony sentences for simple drug possession.
In response to that decision in the State v. Blake case, state lawmakers made drug possession a misdemeanor but required individuals to be offered treatment services on their first and second offense. Criminal charges could be filed on their third drug possession offense, said Billig, who hosted Wednesday's panel in front of an audience that included Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, Spokane City Council members and other public officials.
Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl and state Rep. Mike Volz, R-Spokane, advocated for making drug possession a felony — at least in some cases.
Meidl said property crimes and commercial robberies have increased and many of those crimes are a result of people stealing to pay for their drug habit.
"I'm worried about those who have addiction issues," Meidl said. "I'm worried more about the victims and the number of victims that are created as they support their drug habit."
He said drug users are seen walking down the middle of Spokane streets, using the sidewalks as bathrooms and even injecting drugs in broad daylight outside of businesses.
"A lot of this is related to drug issues," he said.
Meidl said many drug users need an incentive to overcome their addiction.
"So, at some level we do have to be serious about providing that incentive, even if that means you have a felony," Meidl said. "We want you to get treatment. If you get treatment, all these criminal charges related to your drug use will go away as well, but there has to be that incentive."
Volz said the state needs to continue to support drug courts, which have a "tremendous benefit," but that a heavier penalty for drug possession is needed.
"I do think there needs to be some compulsion under law for a felony on certain cases, certain instances or certain levels of crime," he said.
The Legislature, also in response to Blake, appropriated $88.5 million for behavioral health treatment, including community-based treatment and homeless outreach, and expanded therapeutic courts to municipal and district courts where misdemeanors are handled, Billig said.
"Hopefully, whatever happens with the Blake decision work in the Legislature, we can continue to receive support from this community and from the state to continue these therapeutic courts so folks that are in the criminal justice system can be moved out of that system and be successful in our community," Spokane County Superior Court Judge Harold Clarke III said.
State Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, said the Legislature needs to support peer-to-peer support services and housing for recovering addicts.
"Housing is critical," he said.
Dan Sigler, regional director at Pioneer Human Services in Spokane, said state lawmakers need to invest in community-based treatment and the recovery environment, including housing like Riccelli suggested.
"That's often one of the biggest missing pieces," Sigler said.
Francis Adewale, public defender for the city of Spokane, recalled an instance in which a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder completed treatment but did not have a house, so he returned to the streets.
"In this community, we have to connect completion of treatment with housing," Adewale said.
Sigler said the state often focuses funding on new treatment programs and facilities but not enough money to staff them. Sigler said he wanted the state to guarantee enough training and adequate pay for mental health professionals, substance abuse counselors and others who provide services.
He asked that the Legislature not "overcriminalize" drug possession, saying felony charges can hinder people's ability to obtain housing and employment.
"That criminal record can be its own self-perpetuating issue," Sigler said.
"The consequences of having a felony conviction on your history is too much," Adewale said.
He said making drug possession a misdemeanor offense makes it easier for the offender to finish treatment, get a job and get a house.
"If we are not going to decriminalize drug offenses, then please, my god, make it a misdemeanor offense," Adewale said.
Meanwhile, he said the treatment options officers provide people on their first and second offenses does not work because human connection is missing.
Clarke appeared to agree.
"You're going to impact people on a public health issue when you have a relationship with them," Clarke said. "It's all about relationship building with that person to help them move in a different direction. You can't just walk up to someone and say, 'I think you need to go to treatment today.' That's generally not going to work."
Riccelli, Volz and Billig said they expect the Legislature's solution to be a bipartisan effort.
"Whatever the solution, I think it's important that we also have funding for treatment, diversion and other services if we want the solution to be successful," Billig said.