OLYMPIA — Washington lawmakers were negotiating privately but hadn't reached a deal on new penalties for drug possession as of Saturday afternoon, several days before they must meet for a special session to resolve the issue.
Legislators convene in Olympia on Tuesday. Their task: pass a bill to penalize drug possession and potentially secure millions to help people get treatment for addiction. A deadline looms — without an agreement, possessing illicit drugs would be decriminalized July 1 when current state law expires.
During the regular legislative session that began more than four months ago, state lawmakers bounced between proposals that would keep the current penalty, a misdemeanor, and proposals that would raise it to a gross misdemeanor, which comes with a longer maximum jail sentence and higher potential fine.
But it all came to a stunning halt April 23, the last day of the session, when the House voted down Senate Bill 5536, which would have increased possession penalties to a gross misdemeanor. In the days afterward, local governments dealing with frustrations over crime, drug use and overdose deaths started proposing their own possession laws, the first squares in the patchwork quilt of laws that could blanket Washington if no statewide bill is passed.
So Inslee called lawmakers into an emergency session.
Much of the debate has revolved around the criminal penalty and the mechanics of how a person facing charges would move through the justice system, questions lawmakers have been contending with since 2021, when the state Supreme Court struck down Washington's felony drug possession law in State v. Blake. But in its most recent rejection of the bill in late April, the state House also scrapped funding that would have fanned out across Washington to serve people struggling with substance-use disorder.
Much of the money — about $43 million — would have expanded programs or created new ones through the state's Health Care Authority. That money was slated to pay for a range of services, including health care and treatment, and help with housing and finding a job.
Nearly $3.8 million would have gone to increase the number of mobile clinics providing medications to treat opioid addiction, especially in remote areas of the state where brick-and-mortar clinics are scarce and transportation hard to access.
Lawmakers would have also put $4 million toward a pilot program to create "hubs" in the state where people not only could get sterile drug-use supplies, which can prevent the spread of infectious diseases like hepatitis or HIV, but also have the option to get medical care, and get information about treatment and housing assistance.
"It's really kind of about, one stop; let's get somebody in here, reduce the barriers and start working with them, and meeting them where they are," said Michael Langer, deputy director with the division of behavioral health at the state's Health Care Authority.
Like the criminal penalties, the spending component of the bill has gone through changes.
The Legislature has been contending with how much to penalize drug possession since 2021, when the state Supreme Court, in the State v. Blake decision, threw out the state's felony drug possession statute as unconstitutional.
Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, one of the main lawmakers working on the bill, and a vice chair of the Senate's budget committee, acknowledged in an interview in late April that the spending in an earlier version of the bill passed by the Senate was intended to get those wary of punishing drug possession to vote for it. The House struck the spending from the version it passed in early April, she said.
"At that point, I knew that we didn't have a bill that was agreed to, that could get to the governor's desk," Robinson said. "So I said, 'We're not going to fund stuff in the budget for Blake, when we don't know if we're going to even get a bill out this year.'"
When lawmakers tried again to find compromise by reattaching spending to the bill, 15 House Democrats still voted against the proposal April 23.
"This bill does provide for a lot of support for people," said Rep. Tarra Simmons, D-Bremerton, in a speech on the House floor. "And so it is with a heavy heart that I'm not voting for this, but I won't be mad if you vote for it, Madam Speaker."
All Republicans in the House also voted against the bill, arguing it didn't go far enough to penalize drug use and support people facing addiction.
"It set people up to fail," said Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, one of the lawmakers negotiating on the bill, in an interview Thursday afternoon. "There were too many off ramps. There were too many unanswered questions."
The bill would have also created a property tax carveout for certain recovery homes starting in 2024 through 2033 and sent $1.2 million to the Washington State Patrol to help process drug evidence more quickly. Right now, the backlog on some toxicology requests is up to a year, said Chris Loftis, communications director for the State Patrol.
The bill would have required the State Patrol to aim to finish drug analysis for certain possession offenses within 45 days of a request starting Jan. 1, 2025. But the State Patrol is in the process of opening a new toxicology lab in Federal Way and the agency is "feeling fairly confident" that the agency should be able to get turnaround time down to 60 to 90 days by the end of 2024, Loftis said.
Robinson confirmed Friday there's still a possibility the money associated with the failed drug possession bill could be in the upcoming proposal, and lawmakers could add more spending to the bill.
Mosbrucker said that while lawmakers still didn't have a deal as of Thursday afternoon, she thought they were "making progress."
"I think we're closer," Mosbrucker said. "I understand both sides of it, but trying to craft something that works and finds compassionate accountability and helps break this cycle of drug abuse. It's just devastating."
The House has 98 members, and only 43 members voted for the most recent policy, meaning it would need at least seven more votes in order to get through that chamber.
Lawmakers did manage to pass a state budget that will put $142 million toward expanding the state's work to prevent and treat substance-use disorder. Separately, lawmakers also put about $211 million in the state's construction budget toward increasing spaces for behavioral health care, including for substance-use treatment centers.
Officials say the failure of the bill hasn't interfered with the work the state's Health Care Authority is already doing.
"Agencies don't ever really count our chickens before they hatch," said Shawn O'Neill, legislative relations for the Health Care Authority.