On Tuesday the Seattle City Council plans to skip its normal committee process and instead rush a vote to allow City Attorney Ann Davison to prosecute people for drug addiction, likely creating a flood of new low-level cases for the backlogged criminal justice system.

While the Council mulls over whether to start charging people with drug possession and public use for the first time in Seattle, agencies such as the beleaguered Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory brace for an unknown number of law enforcement requests asking the lab’s forensic scientists to spend hours analyzing small amounts of drugs to prove low-level cases, taking time and resources away from analyzing evidence to catch drug dealers and traffickers, which the City names as its top priority.

The Council’s vote comes after Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law a bipartisan bill making drug possession and public use a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in jail for a first and second offense and 364 days for any additional offenses. While legislative leaders said the bill offers paths for people to opt into drug treatment and avoid incarceration, lawmakers also acknowledged that the state lacks a robust network of drug treatment and recovery systems.

On Aug 15, the new law will fully replace a stopgap measure the Legislature passed in 2021 after the state Supreme Court struck down the state’s felony drug possession law in a case called State v. Blake. That stopgap law made drug possession a misdemeanor and required police to refer a person to treatment at least twice before arrest.

The Blake decision disrupted Washington’s criminal justice system, resulting in courts dismissing cases, reducing sentences, and effectively decriminalizing drug possession. For the Washington State Crime Lab, the decision provided a much needed respite, allowing the lab to cancel some backlogged cases and causing a significant drop in demands for drug analysis from law enforcement agencies.

The lab’s work shifted to focus on analyzing cases involving drug delivery, or trafficking, said Chris Loftis, communications director for the Washington State Patrol, which oversees the state crime lab. That is, the crime lab’s mission pivoted to what Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz promised in April of this year–going after the people bringing the drugs into communities rather than the people using the drugs.

Davison told the Seattle Times that cops can do both. But the crime lab exemplifies how drug possession cases gum up the system, wasting time testing drugs for misdemeanor cases that would be better spent on testing rape kits, investigating homicides, and ensuring the lab isn’t overloaded to the point that scientists risk cross contamination, which can result in case dismissals. While each section of the lab handles different kinds of cases, the lab shares resources for developing, reviewing, and sending case reports. Case increases in one section affect all sections, Loftis said. 

State Representative Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland) said legislators gave the lab $1.3 million in funding to reduce drug analysis turnaround time to less than 45 days. Another bill related to marijuana regulation also increased state crime lab funding. Both funding streams should help the lab manage a moderate case load increase, Loftis said.

“If the increase in submissions reaches pre-Blake levels, we may need additional staffing,” Loftis said.

The Council’s rush to vote allows council members to dodge a lengthy, public discussion over issues such as whether the City should divide the resources of the state crime lab between drug use and drug dealing. Other questions include whether the City’s court and treatment resources can accommodate a significant caseload increase, or whether the City might be better off leaving these cases to the King County Prosecuting Attorney, where prosecutors deprioritized drug possession even before the Blake decision. 

As the crime lab girds itself for an inevitable return of drug case backlogs, public defenders prepare to watch police arrest people for drug possession, throw them in jail, and then watch prosecutors force people to wait months for case resolutions, said Molly Gilbert, president of the King County Public Defenders union.

Gilbert wonders whether Davison’s prosecutors plan to even send the drug possession cases to the state crime lab, considering the fact that prosecutors dismiss the vast majority of misdemeanor cases. The purpose of the new law isn’t to convict people, Gilbert argued, the point is for police to arrest them. 

“By just flippantly incarcerating people addicted to fentanyl, even just for a short stint, you vastly increase the possibility of them overdosing and dying,” Glibert said. She’s not wrong.