Rep. Gina Mosbrucker and Rep. Peter Abbarno: Washington drug possession reform needs both accountability and compassion

Communities across Washington state are demanding the Legislature take action to address our drug crisis — from the criminal justice system to treatment alternatives. This widespread call to action is rooted in the tragic reality that drug addiction is devastating individuals and families. And they desperately need our help.

You might be wondering how our state got to a place where it is less than two months away from decriminalizing drugs like fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine.

In February 2021, the state Supreme Court — in State v. Blake — ruled that Washington’s statute on felony drug possession was unconstitutional because it criminalized the act of possessing drugs without the requirement of “knowingly” doing so. Two months later, the Legislature passed a temporary “fix” that reduced the penalty for knowingly possessing drugs from a felony to a simple misdemeanor.

This placeholder measure is set to expire on July 1. Without action, there will be no state criminal penalty for knowingly possessing a controlled substance or a counterfeit substance.

The Legislature must create a meaningful state policy that helps people break the cycle of drug addiction. But it must be done right.

The wrong state policy would be worse than no state policy.

Senate Bill 5536 was introduced this year as a starting point. After several changes, the Senate approved it with a bipartisan vote on March 3. The measure was supported by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, Washington State Narcotics Investigators Association, and many House Republicans.

In the House, majority Democrats made several more changes before passing an amended version on April 11. To resolve differences, a conference committee comprising four Democrats and two Republicans was established with just two days left in the legislative session.

Leading up to this action, House and Senate Republicans worked on improvements to the legislation so it could gain bipartisan support. Unfortunately, House and Senate Democrats rejected those recommendations, instead opting for a partisan approach that was unacceptable and destined to fail.

On the final day of the legislative session, April 23, the partisan conference committee report came to the House floor.

In one of the Legislature’s most dramatic scenes in recent memory, the bill failed on a 43-55 vote — with 15 House Democrats joining all 40 House Republicans in voting “no.” The organizations noted above, and others, also opposed it. 

We want to be clear on why House Republicans opposed this final version of SB 5536. The bill would have:

▪ Lacked accountability. While the failed bill would have made drug possession a gross misdemeanor on paper, its lenient jail diversion process would lead to a revolving door of offenses without the necessary treatment, supervision or accountability.

House Republicans wanted a 12-month diversion with some prosecutorial involvement to hold an individual accountable for violating the conditions of release and to ensure the effectiveness of the treatment alternatives.

▪ Preempted local communities’ regulations regarding using, selling, giving, delivering and possessing drug paraphernalia, including establishing needle exchange locations.

House Republicans asked for more local control and flexibility.

▪ Created recovery residences in local communities that commingle individuals seeking treatment and sobriety with individuals who are actively using.

We asked for greater separation to protect and support those striving to recover.

▪ Established health engagement hubs that allow children, potentially unsupervised children, to be at a location with adults while needle exchanges and consumption services are being provided. 

House Republicans asked for assurance that children not be present in these engagement hubs when adults are actively using.

▪ Sited opioid treatment facilities in local communities without requiring a public hearing.

We asked for mandatory public hearings, so community members have a voice in the decisions.

With Gov. Inslee’s call for a special session on May 16, we believe there is an opportunity to craft new legislation that can accomplish these goals and receive bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.

However, House Republicans are not willing to support a bill that falls short of these goals and still precludes cities and counties from implementing their own anti-drug measures.

House Republicans continue to communicate with members of both chambers to pass a policy that provides safety for our communities and delivers the programs and infrastructure to meet the needs of those who struggle with drug addiction. Our 2023-25 operating and capital budgets include funding for these programs and infrastructure.

Drug addiction is not partisan. This is about finding a balanced state policy that represents the values of every community and is adaptive and flexible for our local treatment providers and criminal justice system.

Our shared vision should be saving lives and providing a better quality of life across Washington state.

This op-ed appeared in The Seattle Times on May 5, 2023: WA drug possession reform needs both accountability and compassion

State Representative Gina Mosbrucker, 14th Legislative District
431 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 786-7856 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000