The Washington Legislature’s 2023 session ended with a thud April 23 after 11th-hour Democratic revisions to legislation to “fix” a controversial state Supreme Court ruling on drug possession penalties hit a brick wall.
An earlier draft of the fix seemed to have broad support just a day earlier, but the last-minute changes — particularly a clause that would’ve meant state drug possession penalties pre-empted any local ones — evidently went too far.
“That helped us decide to be ‘no,’ ” outgoing House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox told the Yakima Herald-Republic Editorial Board in a Monday interview.
It must’ve helped a lot, because no House Republican voted for the revised bill, which lost by a 43-55 vote in the final night of the session.
The Legislature’s impasse leaves the state in an uncomfortable bind.
After the Supreme Court’s 2021 State v. Blake ruling struck down as unconstitutional Washington’s felony drug possession law, legislators crafted the temporary “Blake fix,” which made drug possession a misdemeanor. That legislation, however, expires July 1, and lacking a uniform statewide rule, drug possession could theoretically break no state law.
So naturally, pressure is mounting on Gov. Jay Inslee — who supported the rejected compromise — to call a special legislative session to revisit the Blake question.
That seems imperative.
If the state abdicates its leadership on this one, local governments will step up, creating a confusing patchwork of local rules around the state. While it’s understandable that some might see that as acceptable — perhaps even desirable — Washington is too interconnected to risk one local government’s rules causing headaches for neighboring jurisdictions.
Wilcox and Senate Republican Leader John Braun agreed that the original draft of the fix would’ve had broad support among Republicans, so it’s realistic to think that some sort of legislative solution is within reach.
Both sides of the issue, however, make persuasive cases.
Democrats who oppose imposing harsh drug-possession penalties argue that incarceration and devastating fines create more harm than good for abusers and do little to deter self-destructive behaviors. Republicans, on the other hand, contend that consequences are a critical “stick” that law enforcement and drug treatment professionals need in order to make sure users get help.
Good people can disagree sometimes.
In this case, it makes sense to maintain the possibility of some form of penalty as an incentive for turning away from deadly paths. At the same time, punishment alone is futile and inhumane.
If, as Braun and Wilcox believe, the votes would’ve been there for an earlier piece of legislation, we’d urge both sides to get back at it and give it another try.
The state desperately needs a realistic, long-term solution to a problem that’s infecting every corner of Washington. Drug abuse is dragging down statewide social service networks, causing secondary crimes and killing our neighbors.
We sent lawmakers to Olympia to look out for our best interests. Dumping their work on local governments is unacceptable.
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