Michael Wagar Commentary: Liberal? My ReTrumplican Inner Self Wins Out Over Drug Possession Controversy

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I’m battling an internal struggle between my Liberal vs. ReTrumplican leanings over a recent state Supreme Court case where the justices ruled simple drug possession is no longer a felony in Washington state.

A cataclysmic shift is swamping our law and justice system across the state and here in Lewis County as the state Supreme Court last month in State v. Blake ruled that simple possession of illegal drugs is no longer a felony offense.

The court heard the case of one Shannon Blake, who in 2016 was staying at a friend’s house in Spokane when police served a search warrant seeking evidence of stolen vehicles. She was arrested along with two others. She was searched in jail and an officer found a small baggie of meth in the coin pocket of her second-hand jeans, according to a story published by The Seattle Times.

A friend had bought the jeans and given them to Blake two days before her arrest. Blake said she didn’t use meth and didn’t know there was meth in her pocket. She was found guilty of drug possession. She didn’t serve prison time, but since she was convicted of a felony, lost her rights to vote, own a gun and receive public benefits.

She appealed the conviction. Her lawyer claimed it was unconstitutional. He argued the court needed to prove she knew the drugs were in her pants. The state Supreme Court picked up the case and ruled prior court rulings should have proven intent, that they needed to prove she knew of the drugs in her jeans. The burden of proof rested on the prosecution.

But the state Supreme Court went deeper. Blake’s lawyer had also argued that if intent was not implied, the entire law of simple possession leading to a felony conviction was unconstitutional.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court agreed that the law was unconstitutional, surprising parties on all sides of the issue.

Immediately, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs stated law enforcement should dismiss any related pending cases, and void any pending warrants.

More impactful, the ruling is being interpreted as being retroactive, placing thousands of already settled drug cases in question. Prosecuting attorneys and law enforcement across the state are faced with dealing with retroactive conviction, where those convicted of simple possession are now being reevaluated with some being set free. Even past fines might be repaid to those convicted in the past several decades.

Perhaps the biggest headache for law and justice is going back through the thousands of cases that involve both simple possession and also other charges. The sentencing system in our state relies on a point system. Someone charged with robbery and drug possession, for example, get multiple points that determine sentence length. The prosecutors will now need to go back and reset the sentences by wiping out the points from drug possession convictions. The backlog to settle the sentences might take years and will place a massive workload on prosecuting attorney’s offices already overwhelmed.

I am Libertarian at heart, which to me means leave me the hell alone. The government should provide a strong military and police safety presence, along with roads and other needed utilities, the funding of public education, but that’s about it.

You can smoke, drink and eat fast food even though it’s bad for you. If what you do does not hurt anyone but yourself, so be it. Keep people out of jail as much as possible because I do not want to pay for it.

On ending the law of making simple drug possession a felony, I go all in on Liberalism. It is fine with me. If you want to do drugs, and you don’t hurt others in the process, it’s on you. I think society is better served by getting rid of punishment for simple possession, but this issue is anything but simple.

Lewis County’s law and justice system is fighting the state Supreme Court’s ruling by intending to have the county pass an ordinance to recriminalize drug possession. A public hearing is set for Tuesday, March 30 in front of the Lewis County Commissioners.

I was against the county, led by Sheriff Rob Snaza and Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer, going against the court ruling. I thought, in my best President Biden imitation, “C’mon Lewis County, man, follow the law of the land, follow the Supreme Court ruling.”

Unfortunately, I started to do some research and the right side of my brain, the one that is full of ReTrumplicanism, came to a different conclusion.

If the county ordinance passes, it will be challenged in court, which is welcome. The state Supreme court ruling, called “stunning,” “sweeping,” “difficult,” and with “enormous workload and cost consequences,” is overreaching.

It does nothing to keep drug diversion programs, such as Lewis County’s Drug Court, continuing in efforts to help those struggling with drug abuse. It does not address funding for needed drug treatment, for both physical addictions and mental health issues. It does not help assist law and justice departments in how they treat drug possession and how to retroactively treat felony drug possession convictions. It still allows for past fees going back decades for those convicted for drug possession to be repaid to offenders who broke existing laws.

Hopefully, if the county passes the ordinance, and other counties follow suit, it will force the state Legislature to address the state Supreme Court’s ruling and place some much-needed clarifications and improvements to the issue of drug possession convictions.

 

Next week:

The need for drug treatment and the tax money being collected via legal marijuana sales.

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Michael Wagar is a former president, publisher and editor of The Chronicle.

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