WA House passes bill to make drug possession a misdemeanor

The amended measure mandates a less-severe punishment than previous versions and drops a requirement for pre-arrest substance-abuse services.

A picture of the inside of the Washington Capitol.

The Washington state seal is protected by ropes in the rotunda of the Legislative Building. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The penalty for drug possession in Washington state would remain a misdemeanor under a bill passed by the Washington House early Wednesday morning.

That’s the threshold under current law, which is set to expire at the end of this legislative session. The current penalty was set as a stopgap measure after the Washington Supreme Court in 2021 issued an opinion striking down Washington’s felony drug possession law.

House passage of Senate Bill 5536 sets up talks with state Senate lawmakers, who favored a heavier criminal penalty, in the final days of the legislative session.

The Supreme Court ruling effectively invalidated decades of criminal convictions and related penalties, and in response lawmakers set up this year’s drug-penalty debate in Olympia. In 2022, lawmakers passed a bill that temporarily made drug possession a misdemeanor. Lawmakers must take action before the April 23 scheduled end of the session, or the penalty for drug possession in Washington will be eliminated entirely.

Last month, Senate lawmakers approved SB 5536 to make knowing possession of an unlawful drug a gross misdemeanor for people 21 or older. A gross misdemeanor is a step up from the current level of misdemeanor, but less than the felony penalty that the Supreme Court struck down.

Among other things, the House-amended version takes the bill back to declaring possession a simple misdemeanor. Both versions turned a requirement for pre-arrest referrals to substance-abuse services into a recommendation, according to a statement from the Democratic House caucus. For individuals arrested solely for drug possession, the amended bill adds a requirement for pretrial diversion.

“We need to address the root causes of the substance-use disorder [SUD] crisis as well as the problems that it creates in our communities,” said Rep. Jamila Taylor, D-Federal Way, in the statement.

House Republicans – almost all of whom voted against the new version of the bill – blasted its passage.

"Unfortunately, the legislation approved in the House leaves more questions than answers,” said Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, in a statement. “People will continue dying in the streets of fentanyl, heroin … and other dangerous drugs because there is not enough accountability for their actions.”

The House and Senate are both controlled by Democrats, but lawmakers across the political spectrum have remained split on the best way to tackle the increase in overdose deaths in Washington. Senate lawmakers have preferred a gross misdemeanor statute, and the two chambers will have to negotiate in the coming days to get a consensus that can get to the desk of Gov. Jay Inslee for signature.

Clarifies that both the House and Senate versions of the bill include a recommendation for pre-arrest referrals for substance abuse treatment instead of the current requirement for referrals.

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