Lewis County Officially Drops Drug Ordinance

Decision: Uncertainty Remains Over How State’s New Approach to Possession Will Play Out Locally

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Lewis County formally dropped its proposed drug ordinance this week, and county officials say they’re cautiously optimistic about the Legislature’s new approach to drug possession. That bill — still awaiting the governor’s signature — reclassifies possession as a misdemeanor and requires that individuals be diverted to treatment until their third offense.

Lewis County was one of the first jurisdictions this year to propose its own local drug ordinance after the Washington Supreme Court struck down the state’s drug possession law. At the time, county officials blamed lawmakers for failing to act, while some lawmakers warned that local ordinances would create a patchwork of laws.

The county rejected its ordinance at the recommendation of Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Eric Eisenberg, who said concerns of a policy vacuum would instead be filled by a “statewide solution.”

But while that solution — Senate Bill 5476 — clearly represents a shift toward prioritizing treatment, questions still linger in Lewis County about the bill’s local implications.

“Hopefully this will be the answer. Hopefully,” Stamper said.

When asked what the state’s response would mean locally, Stamper said he was unsure.

“We’ve heard things, but until we see something specific and it goes through the prosecutor’s office and also the sheriff, right now we’ll see what happens,” he said.

Commissioner Sean Swope reported that he would be attending a panel discussion put on by the Washington Counties Risk Pool to learn more. There, panelists — including the policy director for the Washington State Association of Counties — said new state funding to address the fallout of the Blake decision falls short. That fallout includes legal financial obligations now owed back to people once prosecuted for drug possession, as well as a wave of cases that require re-sentencing.

King County Superior Court Judge Sean O’Donnell further highlighted the burden on counties, pointing to existing case backlogs, which are expected to be exacerbated when eviction moratoriums are lifted.

“The truth is we have a three-year horizon right now that’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen, just in terms of case backlogs,” he said.

Meanwhile, service providers are figuring out how they will fit into the new statewide system, in which law enforcement will divert individuals to treatment instead of jail.

Pastor Cole Meckle said Thursday that Gather Church in Centralia will be one of those locations locals can be diverted to. The church already offers low-barrier medication-assisted treatment, harm reduction and housing services. Even so, Meckle said the church will need to expand capacity to fill that role. It’s looking to add more on-site providers to get individuals connected to intensive outpatient programs.

“Systems aren’t there yet to actually do the levels of diversion that need to be done. But hopefully over the next few months we’ll be developing those,” he said. “I’m not even positive what it’s all going to look like, but we’re involved.”

The bill itself represented a push and pull between lawmakers and stakeholders. And locally, debate lingers. Lawmakers from legislative districts 19 and 20 — which cover Lewis County — were split.

Discourse over Lewis County’s proposal this year mirrored that at the state level: supporters of the local ordinance insisted that the penal system is necessary to force people into treatment, while opponents pushed for a public health approach to addiction instead of one hinging on the carceral system.

The ordinance was tabled back in March to allow state lawmakers to address the Blake decision instead.

On Tuesday, Lewis County resident Caleb Huffman again publicly testified against the local ordinance and told commissioners that new state legislation doesn't go far enough to provide solutions outside the penal system.

“Now that the state has criminalized controlled substances, we may be tempted to pat ourselves on the back and move on. However, I’m begging this board, our elected officials, and everyone in the room to not sit back and think the problem is solved,” Huffman said.

The same day, county commissioners passed proclamations honoring correctional officers and drug court. Huffman echoed commissioners and Sheriff Rob Snaza’s repeated praise of the drug court program.

“However, I would like to reemphasize: most people struggling with substance abuse will never be able to participate in drug court,” he said.

Meckle, who said there’s a lack of local options for those looking for treatment, is in favor of shifting away from a criminal approach to drug use. But he said the Blake decision left service providers hanging, striking down state statute without bulking up service provider networks.

Snaza, who strongly urged the county to act on its own this year, voiced skepticism over the Legislature’s new approach.

“I want to make this very clear, is that I hope the intention is not to enable drug use. That’s my main concern,” he said. “So I’m going to take this cautiously, and I’m going to be open minded about this, but we still have to understand that we cannot be enablers.”

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