An eleventh hour vote on revisions to Washington’s drug possession laws ended in failure in the state House this evening when a majority of representatives refused to endorse a conference committee report on E2SSB 5536, Senator June Robinson’s bill that responds to the Supreme Court’s Blake decision.
Several Democrats joined the chamber’s forty Republicans in casting nay votes, creating a potent obstacle to the bill’s passage that leadership determined could not be surmounted before the clock ran out on the 2023 legislative session.
As a consequence, the state doesn’t have a new law slated to replace the previous “Blake fix” that is set to expire in just a few weeks. Absent such a law, Washington would cease to have a uniform criminal justice policy on drug possession, which would mean that localities could set their own laws.
That could be very chaotic and inequitable, which is why Governor Inslee urged the Legislature to act before the Sine Die curtain came down.
But House Republicans refused to provide any votes for the negotiated version of 5536 and House Democrats were too divided to pass it themselves.
That left the bill with no route to Governor Inslee’s desk, at least not before the end of the one hundred and fifth legislative day — the last allowed by the Washington State Constitution for the 2023 regular session.
The roll call vote was as follows:
Final Passage as recommended by the Conference Committee
Yeas: 43; Nays: 55
Voting Yea: Representatives Berg, Bergquist, Bronoske, Callan, Chapman, Cortes, Davis, Donaghy, Duerr, Entenman, Fey, Fitzgibbon, Fosse, Goodman, Hackney, Hansen, Kloba, Leavitt, Lekanoff, Ormsby, Ortiz-Self, Orwall, Paul, Peterson, Pollet, Ramel, Ramos, Riccelli, Rule, Ryu, Senn, Shavers, Slatter, Springer, Stearns, Stonier, Taylor, Thai, Tharinger, Timmons, Walen, Wylie, Jinkins
Voting Nay: Representatives Abbarno, Alvarado, Barkis, Barnard, Bateman, Berry, Caldier, Chambers, Chandler, Cheney, Chopp, Christian, Connors, Corry, Couture, Dent, Doglio, Dye, Eslick, Farivar, Goehner, Graham, Gregerson, Griffey, Harris, Hutchins, Jacobsen, Klicker, Kretz, Low, Macri, Maycumber, McClintock, McEntire, Mena, Morgan, Mosbrucker, Orcutt, Reed, Reeves, Robertson, Rude, Sandlin, Santos, Schmick, Schmidt, Simmons, Steele, Stokesbary, Street, Volz, Walsh, Waters, Wilcox, Ybarra
The Democratic nays were Emily Alvarado, Jessica Bateman, Liz Berry, Frank Chopp, Beth Doglio, Darya Farivar, Mia Gregerson, Nicole Macri, Sharlett Mena, Melanie Morgan, Julia Reed, Kristine Reeves, Sharon Tomiko Santos, Tarra Simmons, and Chipalo Street. Most of them represent districts in Seattle and King County. Bateman and Doglio represent part of Thurston County (the 22nd District). Morgan and Mena represent part of Pierce County (the 29th District).
The Governor suggested in his post Sine Die media availability that he would be calling a special session of the Legislature to get a bill passed — once the House Democratic caucus has identified language that at least fifty members can agree to. (To what extent House Republicans will be involved is unclear, especially with Representative J.T. Wilcox now stepping down as House minority leader.)
The differences between the original versions of 5536 and the “compromise” conference report are outlined in the Office of Program Research and Senate Committee Services staff report reproduced below.Comparison of Senate, House, and Proposed Conference Committee Versions of E2SSB 5536
The conference report managed the feat of having quite a bit for every side to dislike. Hours before the House voted, a coalition of Snohomish County mayors and business leaders called for a no vote. (Their plea was ignored by Democratic legislators representing Snohomish County, who voted for the bill.)
“At this time, we would ask that Snohomish County legislators vote ‘no’ on Senate Bill 5536 and give local governments the authority to address issues related to drug possession, public drug use and treatment incentives in their own jurisdictions,” said the coalition in a statement circulated to the press.
“We continue to believe that a meaningful solution must effectively balance legal consequences and treatment options to reverse the impacts of Blake, and that the current version of the legislation falls short of that test.”
On Twitter, Seattle Times reporter Jim Brunner reposted the statement and summed up the coalition’s position on the conference report as too soft on crime.
“The notion that the bill is too soft on crime is ridiculous. The House caved to pressure to escalate the penalty back up from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor, with diversions allowed only with the consent of the prosecutor,” replied Alison Holcomb, ACLU of Washington’s Director of Political Strategies.
“A gross misdemeanor, carrying a penalty of up to 364 days in jail and a $5k fine, is harsher than the felony penalty that applied before the Blake decision. The standard range for the felony offense was 0–60 days for the first three offenses, less than even a misdemeanor-90 days,” Holcomb added.
“Bigger picture, can someone remind me when arresting and jailing people decreased drug use? We have decades of data showing the War on Drugs has succeeded primarily in making drugs cheaper and deadlier. Exhibit A: fentanyl.”
NPI took a position opposing the original version of SB 5536. The House’s version was also flawed, in our view, but less so than the Senate’s version.
We can understand why many Democratic representatives were uncomfortable voting for the final conference report and ultimately refused to do so.
This bill could use more work, and should be shaped through the prism of what’s humane and what’s effective at helping people break free of addictions to harmful substances, rather than the politics of fear and punishment. Tonight’s outcome, while disappointing to legislative leadership, is probably for the best.