(The Center Square) – Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday afternoon signed into law a compromise bill passed earlier in the day by the Washington State Legislature that attempts to bridge the gap between decriminalizing drugs and the threat of incarceration to force those with substance abuse problems into treatment.
Both chambers of the Legislature approved Second Engrossed Second Substitute Senate Bill 5536 on the first day of a special session called by Inslee to pass a permanent fix to a February 2021 state Supreme Court decision that essentially decriminalized drug possession. A temporary legislative fix making drug possession a misdemeanor was set to expire on July 1.
Lawmakers failed to pass a permanent fix during the 105-day legislative session that ended on April 23.
The special session bill passed does retain criminal penalties for drug possession, making it a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail for the first two offenses and up to a year after that. However, per the bill, police and prosecutors are encouraged to divert people in such cases for treatment or other services. The bill also provides millions of additional dollars for diversion programs and short-term housing for people with substance abuse problems.
“This bill invests $44 million in drug treatment and recovery services, including methadone mobile units, 23-hour crisis relief centers, and housing. It provides resources to actually get this treatment accomplished, rather than just some rhetorical flourish,” Inslee said from a bill signing ceremony in Olympia. “Now the bill also, importantly, maintains some criminal sanction for those who would not be willing to go into treatment in the first instance.”
Inslee said the bill isn’t a panacea when it comes to the challenge of addiction and substance abuse but characterized its emphasis on treatment as a positive step.
“This is not going to solve the drug problem in the next 24 hours and the next several months,” he said. “This is an enormous social problem. It affects the whole United States, not just the state of Washington, but I do believe it has every capability of improving the situation by getting thousands of people into treatment. I believe that’s going to be a good thing.”