Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced plans Tuesday to call a special legislative session this month to pass a new drug possession law that, if not passed, could lead to the legalization of all drug possession in the state.
“My office and I have been meeting with legislators from all four caucuses and I am very optimistic about reaching an agreement that can pass both chambers,” Inslee said in a statement. “Cities and counties are eager to see a statewide policy that balances accountability and treatment, and I believe we can produce a bipartisan bill that does just that. Details are still being negotiated, but caucus leaders share the desire to pass a bill.”
The special session comes after several twists and turns in the state’s drug possession laws in the past two years. In a 2021 ruling known as the “Blake case,” the Washington Supreme Court overturned the state law that made drug possession a felony, saying that the law was unconstitutional because it did not require prosecutors to prove the offender had criminal intent.
In response, lawmakers passed a temporary law that made drug possession a misdemeanor as they worked to pass a longer-term fix. That law expires July 1 but there is yet no replacement, as lawmakers failed to pass a new drug statute in the most recent legislative session, according to the governor’s office.
“In the absence of a statewide policy, several cities and counties have announced their intent to pass their own ordinances which would create a confusing patchwork of policies, treatment options and penalties,” the governor’s office said. “The Legislature has earmarked more than $600 million in new state funding for myriad behavioral health services, including additional treatment facilities and services for people with substance use disorders.”
In Washington’s state legislature, Democrats hold a 58-40 majority in the House and a 29-20 majority in the Senate.
The issue comes amid a nationwide fentanyl drug crisis as well as renewed debates about the best policies to address drug use and addiction.
About 108,000 people died of a drug overdose in the US in the 12-month period from July 2021 to July 2022, according to data published by the CDC. That was a drop of about 2% from the record high in the 12-month period ending in March 2022, although it was still about 50% higher than the deaths five years ago.
In February 2021, Oregon became the first state to officially decriminalize the possession and personal use of all drugs. Voters approved that state initiative, which also expanded access to addiction assistance and other health services, with 55.8% support.
While possession of small amounts of drugs is decriminalized in Oregon, possession of larger amounts could result in a misdemeanor charge.