Lewis County Sheriff Rob Snaza is eager to re-criminalize drug possession countywide after a state supreme court decision, State v. Blake, struck down Washington’s statute, ruling it too vague and effectively legalizing drug possession.
According to Snaza, the county ordinance — which is in the draft phase and is being considered by county commissioners — would be the first of its kind in the state.
“All (38) sheriffs are watching us to see what we do here,” he told commissioners this week, adding, “there’s no reason to accept this. There’s no reason to legalize drugs.”
Lewis County residents will get the chance to speak on the proposed ordinance March 30 during a public hearing. Then, county commissioners will settle questions of how far-reaching the ordinance should be and how harsh to set the punishment.
Some local law enforcement agencies have made their stance clear, finding ways to continue making arrests not through possession laws, but through paraphernalia laws. Snaza has promised commissioners that deputies will “act decisively” as soon as the ordinance is finalized.
Other officials, including commissioners and Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer, have also lambasted the court decision, saying it hamstrings the county’s Drug Court, a diversion program that aims to rehabilitate offenders.
But not everyone busted on possession charges gets the opportunity to go through the much-celebrated program. Drug Court’s number of annual graduates usually stands at around 20 people. By comparison, Lewis County processed 431 possession charges in 2020, according to the clerk’s office.
Although the state may pass a legislative “fix” to the court ruling — via Senate Bill 5468, which would clarify that “knowing” possession of controlled substances is still illegal — the bill has made no progress in the legislative session, which ends in April. Snaza and Meyer have been quick to criticize the lack of action on the part of lawmakers.
“You’re telling your community that you do not care … that you support drug addiction, that you support those with mental health (issues), that you support homelessness,” Snaza said of state lawmakers.
In a virtual town hall meeting with constituents this week, District 19’s Rep. Joel McEntire, R-Cathlamet, called the court ruling a “smack in the face,” while Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said it was “a mistake, in my opinion, on the court’s part.”
Walsh also characterized the fallout of the ruling as a fiscal crisis for counties now forced to reevaluate huge caseloads of past possession charges, figuring out who will be released and whose sentence is impacted. That crisis, Walsh noted, will remain regardless of whether the Legislature re-criminalizes willful drug possession going forward.
But locally, Lewis County officials are still hoping the state re-criminalizes possession. The way Meyer sees it, passing a countywide ordinance could even pressure the state to follow suit, “something that the state should do, it’s just choosing at this point not to do.”
The city of Marysville already took the step to re-criminalize willful possession of controlled substances. Through an emergency ordinance, the city of about 68,000 made the act a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to 364 days in jail and up to $5,000 in fines.
Marysville’s move, Meyer said, is “good news” for Lewis County since it suggests other jurisdictions are headed in the same direction.
Questions at Hand
At a meeting with county commissioners this week, Chief Civil Deputy Prosecutor Eric Eisenberg posed the question of how far-reaching the ordinance should be.
The county’s ordinance could exclude cities, instead only affecting unincorporated areas. The option, Eisenberg told commissioners, would follow precedent by respecting cities’ rights to govern themselves.
But if the county left it up to cities to draft their own ordinances, those ordinances could likely only rise to the level of misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor charges. The county’s drafted ordinance, on the other hand, currently makes possession a felony.
As a “compromise,” Eisenberg said, the drafted ordinance contains an “opt-out” option for cities.
Although it’s unclear how cities will proceed, the result could be a patchwork of drug laws in Lewis County, where getting busted with certain drugs could mean different things in different towns.
Perhaps a bigger question for commissioners is the level of punishment to pair drug possession with. The Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office has warned commissioners that creating a felony penalty via a county ordinance is unusual and could lead to legal challenges. But officials have also said misdemeanor charges may not be enough to “coerce” violators into programs like Drug Court.
“If you choose a misdemeanor penalty, there is a question of whether 90 days as a maximum penalty in jail and a $1,000 fine as a maximum fine is enough to encourage people to go through the type of long-tail drug treatment that we often get to in the felony context,” Eisenberg told commissioners.
In contrast to the 90 days of jail time conferred by a misdemeanor penalty, Drug Court has taken some participants years to complete.
State v. Blake ejected several participants from the program — a “great disservice,” according to Commissioner Lindsey Pollock, who said the county’s proposed ordinance should be considered a “gateway to recovery.” Officials reported that as many as half of those individuals have since relapsed.
If SB 5468 dies in the Legislature this session and possession remains legal statewide, it would not be without precedent.
Last year, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of controlled substances, including heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. Supporters of the ballot measure — which went into effect last month — applauded it as a major piece of reform that would end a criminal justice response to addiction that does more harm than good.
While many officials — similar to those in Lewis County — said the measure would hamstring courts’ abilities to mandate treatment, others framed it as curtailing a decades-long war on drugs that has historically targeted people of color.
The landmark measure also added fuel to a Washington state initiative to decriminalize drug possession, although the bill stalled in the Legislature this year. In condemning the State v. Blake decision this month, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs said that “the legalization of controlled substances without substantial commitments to build and fund the infrastructure to address the root causes of addiction represent the worst of both worlds.”
Lewis County commissioners' meetings and public hearings — now held in-person and via Zoom — can be found at lewiscountywa.gov.