Last year, our Democratic colleagues felt compelled to brag that the Legislature had adjourned on schedule five sessions in a row, with no need to go into overtime. It was presumably an attempt to paint themselves as effective leaders.
That streak, whatever it may have been worth, ended in spectacular fashion on April 23, the final day of this year’s regular legislative session. Democrats couldn’t muster enough of their own votes to pass a new drug possession law, replacing the disastrous social experiment they forced upon our state two years ago. This is despite holding 29 of the 49 Senate seats and 58 of 98 positions in the House of Representatives.
Fast forward to May 16, and the first legislative overtime since 2017. Within a handful of hours, with strong bipartisan votes, the Senate and House had put a new law in place. The bill we passed had been developed through bipartisan negotiations in the three weeks between the regular and special sessions.
It’s a significantly better response to the state Supreme Court’s ruling in State v. Blake than the temporary, two-year response Democrats had pushed through in 2021. The new law also improves on the reasonable version of Senate Bill 5536 that had come out of the Senate with bipartisan support all the way back on March 3. The governor signed it, and we were all heading home again.
Starting July 1, knowingly possessing hard illegal drugs like fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine will be a gross misdemeanor. That’s less than the felony it was before the Blake ruling but more than the misdemeanor that has done so little in the past two years to move people toward treatment.
While the penalty will be greater, the emphasis on treatment will also be greater. Depending on their compliance with pre-trial diversion, or treatment programs, offenders will have the opportunity to see their charges dropped and avoid jail time, or have their convictions vacated.
Nothing in this new law is meant to clear the way for so-called safe-injection sites. Republicans opposed that during the latest negotiations, yet we successfully pushed for cities and counties to retain control over how syringe and other drug-paraphernalia exchange programs operate within their communities.
There’s also close to $27 million in additional funding for law enforcement, treatment and preventative social services.
While not perfect, this new law is a win for those of us who recognize our state’s drug-possession policy must not only offer opportunities to those who seek treatment for drug addiction, but also provide real consequences for those who refuse.
It’s a win for family members, friends and neighbors whose lives have been harmed by drug addiction and those who care about them.
It’s a win for the law-enforcement officers and prosecutors who want a workable drug law, and communities overrun by the crime and homelessness that accompanies the illegal drug trade.
Now that there are no negotiations to put at risk, it can be said: This win would not have been possible without the strong resolve of Republican lawmakers.
Public safety was a top priority for us this session. Inside of that, fixing the drug-possession law was at the top of the list. As the regular session went on, it became the most important issue of the year — rightfully so, considering how the drug crisis is not only about overdose deaths but clearly tied to the rise in crime and homelessness.
While Democrats let the regular legislative session end without a “Blake fix,” allowing the legalization of hard drugs was never an option for Republicans. That determination kept the pressure on to come up with an alternative that could attract more bipartisan support in the special session.
It worked. In the Senate, the special-session version of SB 5536 received 43 “yes” votes, 15 more than the version we last approved in April. In the House, 44 Democrat votes in favor of the bill that failed April 23 turned into 83 bipartisan votes for the better bill on May 16.
The quick special-session action proves state lawmakers can still bridge partisan differences to address critical policy questions. Still, the leadership collapse that made overtime necessary is troubling.
Despite the sobering statistics we all see about fatal overdoses, crime and homelessness, and knowing they had to get a replacement law in place before July 1, Democrats couldn’t get it done in the 105 days of the regular session. Yet they took time to pass measures like Senate Bill 5599. That’s the highly controversial new law which will allow the whereabouts of runaway children to be withheld from their parents, if those children claim to be seeking “protected health services,” such as gender counseling or puberty-blocking chemicals.
All session long I took the view, on various issues, that we must do better. The Blake fix could and should have happened sooner, but what was passed will address major shortcomings in the law and is a strong step in the right direction.
Thanks to the resolve of Republicans, we did better.
Sen. John Braun of Centralia serves the 20th Legislative District, which spans parts of four counties from Yelm to Vancouver. He became Senate Republican leader in 2020.