At the heart of any good criminal justice policy involving substance abuse and addiction should be accountability and compassion. Although this policy will evolve and improve over time, I believe the special session Blake “fix” on Senate Bill 5536 is a strong step in the right direction.
If you haven’t noticed, there will be quotation marks around the word “fix.” That is for two reasons.
First, I don’t believe the policy is the last word in this area of substance abuse. Second, although this bill is in response to the February 2021 state supreme court ruling decriminalizing the possession of controlled substances, we must recognize that growing damage and the impact substance abuse was having on our communities began before February 2021.
Addiction to hard drugs and substance abuse devastates our families and communities. We see the rise in crime, rise in homelessness and the perpetuation of intergenerational poverty resulting from the state of Washington not adequately investing in mental health and substance abuse providers and the infrastructure to adequately help those who need it most. During that same time, the Legislature lessened the penalty and obligations for criminals and ignored calls for accountability through our judicial system.
If the Legislature did nothing to address the Blake decision, and decriminalized the possession of drugs such as fentanyl, local governments would no longer be preempted by the state and could fashion their own local ordinances and penalties. I don’t think this would be the best statewide policy.
Would chaos have ensued? Likely not. While several local governments might have fully decriminalized hard drug possession and use, and been held accountable by their constituents, most would pass gross misdemeanor offenses based on model ordinances and the dominos would fall across the state creating similar penalties.
However, I don’t believe that is the best policy statewide and recognize that legislators are elected by their constituents to lead on policy and solve problems. Ultimately, it is the state’s responsibility. I felt it was our oath and obligation to solve this problem and take a step forward in the right direction. The Blake fix is not perfect. It does strike the right balance and is a vast improvement over the current law, no law, and the conference committee proposal that I debated on the House floor on April 23.
Since April 23, negotiators spent hours a day working with staff and members of all four caucuses to find the right balance between no law, misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor, felony, as well as all the penalties and obligations that go along with such law. We also worked on treatment off-ramps and tried to build a policy around a system that does not have capacity to respond to all the community needs.
The bill passed the Senate 43-6 and the House 83-13 on May 16 and includes items that House Republicans wanted to see since we started negotiating this policy prior to the end of the regular legislative session:
• Gross misdemeanor offense for the knowing possession and knowing possession and use in a public place;
• Prosecutorial consent to diversions;
• Minors not allowed service or presence in health engagement hubs;
• Recovery residences for individuals wanting an opportunity for life in sobriety;
• Local government control over the distribution of drug paraphernalia in their communities; and
• Local notification of the state’s intent to site opioid treatment facilities within their boundaries and the ability to hold public hearings.
There were some reasons to vote “no” for this policy, most notably: it did not go far enough on accountability for repeat offenders; the workforce and infrastructure is not yet developed for this substance abuse policy; and the definitions are still too vague for implementation in a uniform way. However, the overwhelming majorities in all four caucuses agreed this was a strong step forward on criminal justice and substance abuse policy to address the concerns of rural, suburban, and urban communities.
It's my hope that we continue this bipartisan model into the future. There was no good reason why we could not have resolved this issue during the regular session. House Republicans worked hard to build consensus around a common sense policy all year. The majority party had two full years to pass a Blake ‘fix,’ but kicked the can down the road until the last minute.
Despite the delays, I believe the final bill that passed overwhelmingly on May 16 was a result of Republicans and Democrats in the state House and Senate wanting a bipartisan policy that better meets the needs of all Washingtonians. If this bipartisan approach gets replicated more often during the regular session, Washington would see more well-rounded balanced policies.
State Rep. Peter Abbarno is a Centralia-based attorney who represents the 20th Legislative District as a Republican in the Washington Legislature.