Washington State's Legislative Building, on the Capitol Campus
The Legislative Building, seen here from above the Temple of Justice, is the heart of Washington State's Capitol Campus in Olympia (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

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:

Roll Call
SB 5536
Con­trolled substances
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.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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