To know where we are going, we must know how we got here. Many were surprised by the Washington Supreme Court’s ruling in Blake; however, Washington state was the last state with a strict liability felony drug possession law. Regardless, the impact of the ruling was clear and widespread. Within hours of the decision, the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office was presenting orders for the release of inmates benefitting from the ruling, as was ultimately required. Frankly, the immediate response coordinated between this office, the Lewis County Clerk’s Office, local defense counsel and the Lewis County Superior Court, saved my office and the county a lot of time and money.
But it did not resolve the more difficult question: what is the remedy?
Blake, in essence, allowed the simple possession of all drugs because the statute governing the possession of drugs was no longer in existence and there was no replacement.
Let that sink in.
With overdose deaths on the rise, much of the homeless population suffering from substance use disorder, individuals suffering from behavior health issues self-medicating, and in the middle of a pandemic, possession of dangerous drugs was now legal. More concerning was that it was OK for kids too. Our laws still prohibited possession of tobacco for kids, but now it was OK for a minor to possess marijuana. A child could go to jail for underage drinking, but it was legal for that same child to possess fentanyl.
Perhaps worse is that there seemed to be very little motivation to rectify the situation from the governor or his party, which holds a majority in both the state House and Senate. Many of us knew something had to be done to protect those suffering from substance use disorder and to, hopefully, dissuade others from even starting. My office proposed a county ordinance to correct the deficiency in the law and create an enforceable crime at the county level. In my conversations with Sen. John Braun and Reps. Ed Orcutt and Peter Abbarno, they shared my frustration and efforts at the local level. They were also upset at the lack of willingness to act in Olympia. All three of our representatives in the state Legislature supported or sponsored legislation that would have helped provide a “fix” to the Blake decision.
Fortunately, there was some action at the state level and the governor signed a bill into law. Senate Bill 5476 passed along party lines in the state Senate 26-23 and with strong bipartisan support in the State House 80-18. The vote counts alone evidence the complexity of this issue.
Without some action by the state, possession of illegal drugs would stay decriminalized. With some action by the state, possession would have at least some guardrails. Is Senate Bill 5476 perfect? No, and that is why our delegation was mixed on the legislation. But it gives the state Legislature two years to “really” fix the statute rather than possession becoming fully decriminalized today.
What does the new law do? The first two times a person gets found with controlled substances they must go through a referral/diversion process. On the third time, they get referred to the prosecutor’s office who is “encouraged” to also divert the person. It may be too late by that time and it puts a strain on local law enforcement and my office. But doing nothing was unacceptable.
The passage of the law prevented Lewis County from acting. But it was also unclear whether the county acting with a stronger law would have been preempted and challenged. It remains unclear what the future looks like or the impact of the new law. What is clear is that someone suffering from addiction is not likely to voluntarily seek treatment without some intervention. This new law requires some intervention.
I recently spoke with both Sen. Braun and Rep. Abbarno and it is very clear that they both lobbied for a more robust law, and I am confident Rep. Orcutt did as well. Rep. Abbarno even co-sponsored a long list of strong bills that would have been better than Senate Bill 5476 and helped fix Blake. However, our delegation is not yet in the majority. Maybe in two years there will be better legislation addressing this issue.
In the meantime, my office will continue to work on this issue and uphold the new law and the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office will continue to do exceptional work, as they always have, to serve and protect the citizens of our county.
I appreciate the hard work of our state delegation and their willingness to serve and fight for our community’s safety. My office will continue to promote a better law and look forward to working with the Legislature on a real fix to Blake.
Jonathan Meyer is Lewis County’s elected prosecutor.