Drug possession is now a severe misdemeanor in Washington State. Senate Bill 5536 is headed to the Ways & Means Committee.
The Washington State Senate committee passed an amended Senate Bill (SB) 5536 on February 9, 2023, making drug possession a gross misdemeanor and incorporating the Substance Use Recovery Services Advisory Committee’s treatment recommendations.
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The bipartisan committee has met for two years to discuss the state’s drug possession law.
SB 5536 would make knowing possession of a controlled substance or counterfeit a serious misdemeanor. Gross misdemeanors can result in 364 days in county prison and a $5,000 fine.
The bill would make drug possession a severe misdemeanor and offer pretrial diversion. The defendant must genuinely participate in a substance use disorder treatment program to have the simple possession charge dropped in the pretrial diversion program.
The judge must inform the defendant of the pretrial diversion program at arraignment for simple possession. The court must drop the charges if the defendant completes pretrial diversion, including significant therapy or services.
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The bill also mandates increased treatment and service access. The Health Care Authority would support state-wide recovery residences if passed. Residences may be excluded from real and personal property taxes.
The Health Care Authority would also train parents of children with substance use disorders and fund job-finding programs for recovering addicts. The law would fund many therapies. It funds local jail opioid medicines, mental health and addiction treatment, and crisis relief facilities.
Senators June Robinson, John Lovick, Christine Rolfes, Mark Mullet, Manka Dhingra, Andy Billig, Bob Hasegawa, Karen Keiser, Patty Kuderer, Marko Liias, Liz Lovelett, T’wina Nobles, Emily Randall, Derek Stanford, Lisa Wellman, and Claire Wilson sponsored SB 5536.
“What has been particularly fascinating when attempting to deal with the Blake issue is truly the reality that everyone is coming to this work with the aim of getting people treatment and assisting them on their journey to recovery,” said Law and Justice Committee head Senator Manka Dhingra.
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In State versus Blake, the Washington State Supreme Court held on February 25, 2021, that the state’s drug possession legislation was unconstitutional because it did not require prosecutors to establish the defendant willfully possessed the drugs. The ruling meant no state legislation criminalized drug possession.
In April 2021, the Washington State Legislature enacted Engrossed Senate Bill 5476, which requires drug offenders to be provided treatment twice before being detained and prosecuted. Controlled substance possession became a misdemeanor. That law expires on July 1, 2023.
Republican Senator Mike Padden opposed making drug possession a severe misdemeanor. Senator Padden stated:
“I think we should keep a felony because we need leverage to get them into treatment. The legal system treats these as felonies.”
Senator Manka Dhingra said a felony charge goes too far since offenders face “collateral effects.”