Lawmakers cannot allow Washington’s drug crisis to continue
December 16, 2022

Lawmakers cannot allow Washington’s drug crisis to continue

Washington needs a serious drug policy.

In 2016, Shannon Blake was arrested in Spokane, Washington. At the jail, officers found a small bag of methamphetamine in the pocket of her jeans. At trial, she testified that a friend had given the jeans to her two days before Blake’s arrest, that she had never used methamphetamines, and did not know the jeans had drugs in the pocket. Both the trial and appellate courts rejected the defense.

In February 2021, The Washington Supreme Court reversed course. In State v. Blake, they found the state’s statute regarding possession of a controlled substance to be unconstitutional. The Court held that Washington’s strict liability drug possession statute violates the due process clauses of the state and federal constitutions as it exceeds the state’s police power.

The Blake decision was also retroactive to 1971, consequently, there were 50 years’ worth of simple possession convictions in our state that were subject to being vacated.

In May 2021, the state legislature replaced Washington’s old law with a new statute making drug possession a misdemeanor. Under the new law, the first two times that police officers catch someone with drugs, they must issue the person a warning and provide them with contact information for rehabilitation resources. On the third occasion, the individual can be arrested and charged — but no charge is still viewed as the preferred outcome. An exception is made if the amount of illegal substances exceeds the legal limits (which vary based on type), suggesting a connection to drug trafficking, in which case police can make an arrest without two prior warnings.

Additionally, since Washington doesn’t have a unified court system, each county was responsible for implementing the new rule according to its own processes, hamstringing police since there was no statewide database to track how many warnings a drug suspect had already been given.

In effect, the loosened drug policy makes it almost impossible to get arrested for drug crimes in our state.

In the meantime, a study from the University of Washington’s Addictions, Drugs and Alcohol Institute (ADAI) revealed a stunning 18% increase in the intentional use of the deadly opioid fentanyl across the state since 2019.

Fentanyl has been linked to the increase in crime across the Puget Sound region.

In the heart of downtown Seattle, along 3rd Avenue and surrounding streets, against the backdrop of Pike Place Market, addicts smoke and inject all kinds of substances in plain sight. And Special Agent Frank Tarentino III, who leads the Seattle Field Division for the Drug Enforcement Administration, said drugs are fueling gun violence in the city.

Even though Seattle city attorney Ann Davison says she wants to go after repeat offenders, her hands are tied by the limits on prosecution of drug use.

Jim Fuda with Crime Stoppers Puget Sound describes the situation as a “revolving door, ” saying that except for “crimes against a person, a violent crime, they’re back on the street… Until this changes, the cycle of lawlessness in Seattle will continue.”   

When state lawmakers convene in January, one thing is clear: Changes to the state’s drug policy are necessary. Given the growing opioid crisis, legislators must be cautious about a soft approach to drug enforcement. Mention pressure from a bi-partisan number of mayors, city leaders from around the state that have sent letters to their legislative delegation advocating for action.

Keith Humphreys of the Stanford Network on Addiction Policy has stated, “Addicted people usually do not seek treatment and recovery without external pressure from family, friends, employers, health care providers or the law… Many addicted people are not working or in touch with their family, those pressures to stop using drugs and alcohol are absent from their lives.”

Washington cannot remove all legal pressure to stop drug use and seek treatment.

In rethinking drug enforcement, our state lawmakers must find a way to mandate and provide treatment for addicts, provide genuine enforcement for the most dangerous drugs, and draw a clear line between penalties for recreational users and dealers.

Drug laws, when enforced, exist to ensure the safety of our communities and allow small businesses to serve their customers. But another critical purpose, and one where our state has been falling short since the Blake decision, is to provide a path toward treatment for those who need it.

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