Skip to main content

Inslee signs drug policy overhaul into law in Washington state

Passed during a one-day special session on Tuesday, the package includes tougher penalties for illegal drug possession, along with millions for treatment programs
A large white building with a tall tower and staircase
The Washington State Capitol in Olympia. | SHUTTERSTOCK
May 18, 2023

State legislators on Tuesday approved an overhaul of state law guiding penalties and treatment options for people caught possessing illegal drugs or using them in public. The measure passed during a one-day special session focused specifically on the issue, clearing the Senate on a 43-6 vote and the House by an 83-13 margin. Gov. Jay Inslee signed the legislation into law on Tuesday afternoon.

Central to the bill is a tougher penalty for drug possession. This would change from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor, with a penalty of up to 180 days in jail and a maximum $1,000 fine on a first or second offense. The legislation also designates public use as a crime and sets the same penalty. If a person is convicted more than twice for either of these offenses, the jail term could rise to 364 days.

These provisions will take effect on July 1.

The legislation will also enable cities and counties to set their own rules around drug paraphernalia for “harm reduction” initiatives, like needle exchanges and the distribution of smoking supplies.

Lawmakers included $63 million in the bill for programs meant to help alleviate illegal drug use and problems tied to it.

For people to access offramps away from jail, toward pretrial diversion treatment programs, prosecutors would need to sign off.

People who comply with certain treatment requirements can seek to have convictions vacated for drug offenses that the bill deals with. A vacated conviction limits how much an offense adversely affects a person going forward, both within the legal system and when it comes to securing jobs and housing.

“I am confident that this will be a statewide solution to a statewide problem,” Inslee told reporters after signing the legislation. “This bill was not designed to fill our jails. It was designed to fill our treatment centers.”

By passing the bill, lawmakers have avoided a situation where illegal drugs would have been decriminalized this summer under state law, with local governments left to adopt their own policies. This would’ve happened because the Legislature passed a temporary measure in 2021 setting a misdemeanor penalty for possession but scheduled that law to expire in July.

They passed that earlier legislation after the state Supreme Court in 2021 declared unconstitutional a previous drug possession statute, which included the possibility of a felony penalty. That case was known as State v. Blake and the bill lawmakers passed Tuesday has become known as the “Blake fix.”

Not everyone was pleased with the outcome of Tuesday’s session. The ACLU of Washington called the legislation “a huge step backwards in Washington’s fight against the ever-growing public health crises of substance use disorder and the opioid overdose epidemic.”

“Lawmakers spoke in both chambers today in favor of using handcuffs and jail cells to punish those who use drugs, ignoring the lessons of the past 50 years,” said Alison Holcomb, the group’s director of political strategy. “We cannot punish people into recovery.”

Marco Monteblanco, president of the Washington Fraternal Order of Police, on the other hand, said the legislation, “ensures a good balance of treatment, accountability and consequences for addressing substance abuse disorders in our communities.”

“This is a compromise that we support,” Monteblanco added.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: [email protected]. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.