It’s been a long, confusing ride for drug decriminalization in Washington state. And that’s just in 2021! Beginning in February the Washington State Supreme Court made a landmark 5-4 ruling declaring that the state’s current drug laws were unconstitutional, which meant that law enforcement officers would no longer arrest or prosecute strictly for simple drug possession in the state of Washington. Just a few months later, the new legislation would be introduced that reclassified simple possession as a “misdemeanor”, instead of a “felony” as previously designated in Washington drug laws.
In this post, we’ll explore all that is the confusing maze of Washington’s 2021 drug laws; all while keeping in mind that our precious cannabis isn’t included here in the Washington drug decriminalization. Dating back to another landmark decision on December 6th, 2012, Washington became the first US State to legalize adult-use or recreational cannabis use, therefore cannabis consumers were already protected from arrest in the state.
What’s Going On and Why?
Thanks to a Spoken woman by the name of Shannon Bowman, simple drug possession became legal in Washington, albeit briefly. If you were stopped and suspected of drug possession, all you needed to do is say that you didn’t know where drugs came from and law enforcement would leave you alone.
Bowman’s Supreme Court ruling challenged the constitutionality of Washington’s drug possession law and turned some lawmakers on their heads after she told the judge that she didn’t know the methamphetamine found in her pants came from. She further claimed that the pants were a gift from a friend, a viable defense according to Washington State Supreme Court Judges.
They Wouldn’t Have It For Too Long
Immediately, other lawmakers began to squirm, claiming this move would negatively impact the criminal justice system’s ability to get those struggling with drug addiction into treatment through state funded “drug diversion” programs. Ultimately, lawmakers rallied Governor Jay Inslee to redirect Washington’s approach to drug users in a bill signed into law on Thursday, May 13th, 2021.
While the previous bill saw the punishment of drug possession as unconstitutional, lawmakers ultimately reclassified possession of narcotics to a “misdemeanor”, which many say could continue to negatively impact communities of color and others impacted by the War on Drugs.
What’s the New Bill Mean?
The reclassification of possession includes substances: cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. Simple possession is now a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail. Gov. Inslee shared that this updated measure will “help reduce the disparate impact of the previous drug possession statute on people of color” before signing the bill.
Inslee further declared that this legislation will help to move “the system from responding to possession as a felony to focusing on the behavioral health response, which is a much more appropriate and successful way to address the needs that underlie drug abuse”. Given that communities of color are arrested at 2.9 times the rate of whites, according to a 2010 Drug Policy Alliance report, we’re unclear how governmental agencies plan to address this glaring injustice of just how the new legislation will reduce the harm faced by people of color.
A New Model for Washington Drug Laws
The state plans to implement drug treatment diversion programs the likes of those developed in Seattle, said to assist in providing “continual, rapid and widespread access to a comprehensive continuum of care” to “all persons with substance abuse disorder.”
Also under the new drug possession law, police would now be permitted to “divert a defendant’s first two offenses to treatment before the case even made it to a prosecutor. If a defendant’s case ever reached a prosecutor, the prosecutor would be able to divert as well”, according to a US News report on the matter.
To those with more radical Washington drug decriminalization ideas, note that these provisions expire in two years. Two years for lawmakers to evaluate how the new policies are working, and why, and potentially figure out a long-term strategy for drug policy in Washington.
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