Lewis County Walks Back Criminal Drug Ordinance, Waits for State to Act

Possession: County Pauses Attempt to Counter Supreme Court Decision That Led to Dismissal of Many Charges


After weeks spent discussing not if, but how, Lewis County would re-criminalize drug possession, commissioners changed course Tuesday, instead tabling their proposal until after the state Legislative session.

County officials are now more optimistic that lawmakers will address the state Supreme Court’s Blake decision, which left Washington scrambling by effectively decriminalizing simple drug possession. Tabling the local ordinance, Commissioner Gary Stamper said, will “allow our legislators to really do their job.”

Weeks ago, county officials said the local push could pressure the state to follow suit. And state lawmakers specifically cited Lewis County, warning that local ordinances could create a patchwork of laws across Washington.

“It seems the board wanted to put pressure on the state government to act. And it worked,” said long-time resident Caleb Huffman, who opposed the ordinance during public testimony this week.

Previously, while commissioners condemned lawmakers for failing to act, Sheriff Rob Snaza was a loud voice in pushing the county to re-criminalize possession. Lewis County would have joined just a handful of local jurisdictions in acting before the state.

“It’s abundantly clear to me that no one here is interested in acting in haste and being inconsiderate of the real people that are affected by what goes on in this room today,” Commissioner Lindsey Pollock said.

Democratic lawmakers, who control both chambers, say they were confident in their ability to address the ruling. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig told reporters that there’s “a lot of common ground” between parties in crafting the legislation.

For Democrats leading the charge, the plan is not just to re-criminalize willful possession, but to shift the state’s response to drug use from a punitive approach to a public health approach.

“It’s more than just filling the whole statutorily,” said Rep. Jamila Taylor, D-Federal Way. “We have to make sure we’re righting the wrongs of the past.”

The Blake decision, according to House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, gives the state “a real chance to fix a broken system.”

Under Deputy Majority Leader Manka Dhingra’s proposal, Washingtonians over the age of 21 with small amounts of illegal drugs could be referred by law enforcement to the Department of Social and Health Services personnel to assist them in accessing treatment and other services. Those under 21 knowingly possessing small amounts would be guilty of a gross misdemeanor.

Funding would also be provided to help localities address the fallout of the Blake decision, including the many cases — stretching back to the 1970s — prosecuted under a law now deemed unconstitutional.


Local Pushback

The decision by county commissioners comes as a relief to some who testified this week against the proposed ordinance. For Brooke Reder, a care coordinator at Centralia’s Gather Church who is also in recovery, the move is “a success, for right now.”

Gather Church operates a low-barrier clinic for medication-based substance use disorder treatment.

“I think there’s way too many things to be talked about and there needs to be more of a resolution than just putting people in jail,” Reder told The Chronicle.

The county’s drug court program — heralded as a success, although only a small fraction of offenders get to go through the program — doesn’t seem like a solution to Reder, who said she tried to get into the program, but couldn’t do so without a criminal charge.

Instead, she said things such as sober housing and other services “would have a huge, huge impact for so many people,” especially those living without shelter.

“But we don’t have those things in Lewis County. Just so many people need (substance use disorder) treatment and need mental health help, and we don’t have the capability right now where Lewis County stands,” Reder said.

In his own testimony, Huffman pointed to research around the criminal justice system and drug-related issues in the U.S. Analysis from the Pew Research Center found no correlation between imprisonment and drug use, drug-related arrests or overdose deaths.

“In the world of social science and experts, we’re not even debating this anymore. Criminalization doesn’t work for the majority,” Huffman told commissioners. “Most people who abuse controlled substances are suffering from severe trauma, and our solution is to threaten them with more trauma in prison or jail.”


‘Coerced Treatment’

County officials, on the other hand, have continuously pointed to the “accountability” provided by the criminal justice system, with Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer arguing that “coerced treatment” is critical to addressing drug-related issues, including the recent spike of overdoses in Lewis County.

During public testimony, Dawn Miles’ story aligned with that perspective. After 14 years off drugs, Miles, a Chehalis school bus driver, said her successful recovery was due to “tough love.”

“I cannot stress enough that we need to enforce whatever drug laws that we possibly can to hold people accountable,” she said.

Republican lawmakers have echoed the sentiment. Last week, Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, told reporters that “sometimes the best way for them to get treatment is for them to have court convictions or an arrest.”

House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, concurred, saying “for many families, the way out started with arrest and incarceration … And I think we absolutely have to preserve that possibility.”

Despite those partisan differences at the state level, Lewis County officials have expressed optimism that lawmakers can work something out. This week, Lewis County Commissioner Sean Swope said Dhingra — who has pointed to Seattle’s successful Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program as inspiration — has a promising plan.

“As long as they’re going to do something, we’re all for that,” he said.