Drugs are back on the agenda Tuesday as flustered lawmakers reconvene in Olympia for a special session on a new bill to ban public drug use, increase criminal penalties for drug possession, and spend $63 million to cram a public health approach to addiction into the criminal justice system.

Party leadership at the Washington State Legislature aims to keep the session short by voting on the first day, which would save taxpayer dollars and allow lawmakers to return to their lives–*cough* fundraising events *cough*. However, the Legislature’s last attempt to pass statewide drug policy ended with a chaotic failed vote on the House floor in the final hours of the regular session, so maybe something fun like that could happen. 

A mix of Democratic and Republican representatives voted down that last attempt to pass Senate Bill 5536. A week later, Gov. Jay Inslee scheduled a special session to ensure the state created a new drug possession law. 

The Legislature passed the current statewide stopgap law governing drug possession in 2021 after the state Supreme Court struck down the old felony drug possession law in a case called State v. Blake. The temporary law made drug possession a misdemeanor (90 days in jail) and required law enforcement to refer someone to treatment at least twice before arresting them. That law expires on July 1. 

Without the law, cities and counties could create their own drug possession policies, which could result in a patchwork of ordinances. Legislative leaders and Inslee both argued in favor of one statewide policy.

For about three weeks, lawmakers from all four caucuses negotiated over the final bill draft, finally releasing it Monday with the special session scheduled to start in less than 24 hours. 

Compared to the bill that failed during the regular session, lawmakers added about $20 million in recovery housing, youth services, public defense, and Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion.

If passed, the bill would create two separate gross misdemeanors, one for drug possession and the other for public drug use. However, the maximum jail sentence for a person’s first and second offense for either crime would be 180 days, rather than the standard gross misdemeanor penalty of 364 days. The bill would also always limit the fine to $1,000. 

For any subsequent conviction of either possession or public use, a judge could sentence a person to up to 364 days. Prosecutors can’t double up by charging someone with drug possession and public drug use for the same behavior. 

State Senator Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond) credited progressives in the House and the Senate with the idea to limit the maximum sentence for a gross misdemeanor.

State Senator Yasmin Trudeau (D-Tacoma) acknowledged improvements to the bill but said the state was still relying on the criminal justice system to bully someone into treatment, which isn’t effective.

“We don’t have the infrastructure to offer services to everyone who will need it, and that gives me great pause,” Trudeau added.

Republicans also won concessions. The bill would eliminate a ban on people giving out paraphernalia, such as a needle exchange, but local governments would still be able to regulate those operations, a policy Republicans asked for in an April 29 letter to the governor. Republicans also successfully pushed for a provision requiring the Washington State Department of Health to tell the media when considering licensing an opioid treatment provider in a community.

Representatives from all four caucuses recommended their fellow lawmakers vote yes on the compromise bill during the special session Tuesday.

The state sets the ceiling for criminal sentences of a given crime, so cities and counties can pass their own laws matching the state’s drug possession laws.  

In King County and Seattle, members from both councils proposed making public drug use a misdemeanor, but neither proposed a drug possession ordinance. Meanwhile, the Spokane City Council voted last week to make both drug possession and public drug use a gross misdemeanor (364 days jail). So if the current proposal passes, then Spokane’s max penalty would drop to 180 days for a person’s first two offenses, but then ratchet back up to 364 for every other offense thereafter. 

State Rep. Nicole Macri (D-Seattle) did not say whether she planned to support the bill, though she acknowledged it was better than what went to the floor on the final day of the regular session.

“I do think progressive organizing did make a difference,” Macri said.

Still, criminal charges don’t help people with substance use disorder or improve public safety, she said.

Dhingra argued the bill reflects that the Legislature is serious about a public health approach to drug addictions. Options for treatment are available prior to arrest, after arrest, and before trial. People can also access treatment services provided through this bill regardless of where a person’s case is in the process, she said. If a person is arrested and waiting for a charge, they can still access treatment. 

“I’ll just say this is not a bill where anybody got everything they wanted. It is a bill that is implementable. We can start taking action to help people,” Dhingra said. 

The Senate is expected to meet first this morning and then pass it to the House, who is expected to gather at about noon. Stay tuned!