Commentary: Failure to fix state’s disastrous drug possession law looms over session successes


Republicans came into this year’s legislative session vowing to fix the state’s drug possession law so offenders would have more incentive to enter and complete treatment. We remain committed to addressing this issue in a meaningful way, but the Democrats have made it  impossible.

In the Senate, we worked hard across party lines, and with many different groups invested in a solution, to craft and pass a bill that clearly leaned more toward treatment than incarceration, but also worked for law enforcement, courts and local governments. The majority Democrats in the House said no to that very reasonable and responsible approach. They insisted on a weaker version closer to the failed law that has ruined countless lives over the past two years.

With about four hours left in the 105-day session, House Democratic leaders called a vote on another version of SB 5536. They had no expectation that Republicans in the House would go along, as the new policy was opposed by the key stakeholders who would actually have to make the new law work. No Republicans supported it. Fifteen House Democrats also said no, and the bill went down in flames, by a 43-55 vote. It was an epic failure. The legislative session was gaveled to a close soon after, without a fix for what is obviously the most serious public safety issue in our state.

The misdemeanor drug possession law enacted in 2021, in response to the state Supreme Court’s Blake decision, will expire July 1. In the absence of a state law to replace it, local governments will be free to enact and enforce their own drug laws. Republicans will continue to work in good faith toward a workable state-level solution, but if it’s not done right, I’m open to letting the cities and counties do what they need to do.

The collapse of the effort to reform Washington’s drug possession law is a huge disappointment, because public safety isn’t just a top priority for Republicans. It is the top priority for the people of Washington, by a wide margin.

Our communities are plagued with homelessness, violent crime, drug abuse, auto theft and retail theft. People rightfully feel as if they are under siege. Yet Democrats pushed — and at times passed — more criminal-friendly legislation. Even the progress made on the police pursuit issue is no more than a half-step in the right direction. We’ll have to work on that again in 2024.

The outcomes were better when it came to another of the public’s top concerns, which Republicans share: the dramatic increases in the cost of living and Washington’s shortage of affordable housing. Fortunately, we were able to get in front of the efforts to reach deeper into people’s pockets. These included one that would have raised property taxes by $12 billion over the next 10 years and another that would tax drivers by the mile. These new and increased taxes would have disproportionately harmed middle- and lower-income families, just as the shortage of affordable housing has.

Speaking of housing, Republicans were responsible for major strides made in zoning and permitting reform this session. These changes are aimed at increasing the supply of buildable land and reducing the red tape and costs related to homebuilding. It’s the right way to approach the housing supply issue, unlike the governor’s unsuccessful try to put a $4 billion housing referendum on the ballot.

K-12 education was the third of our three highest priorities and our successes there are exemplified by the $800 million in the new state budget to enhance special education services over the next four years. Republicans have fought for many years for more special education funding, because the students receiving those services deserve better than they’ve been getting.

I wish the same progress had been made on addressing the learning loss caused by pandemic classroom closures. I have said many times that the high level of learning loss suffered by Washington’s schoolchildren is the equity issue of our time because it has increased the learning gap, leaving children of color and those in lower-income families further behind. The Senate budget directed $70 million toward closing that gap, through things like intensive tutoring. Because the House disagreed with that approach, the final budget puts faith in the superintendent of public instruction to do what is best for local school districts, something his office has failed to accomplish up to now.

In between the disappointments, Republicans have much to be proud of this year. Despite being outnumbered, we got some important legislation through. Our success is also measured by the number of bad policies we blocked.

No one knows whether the Legislature will find itself back in session before July 1 to try again on fixing the drug possession law. I hope we do. We need a policy that will help those suffering from drug addiction. Our citizens, our law enforcement and our communities demand it.

We must do better.


Sen. John Braun of Centralia serves the 20th Legislative District, which spans parts of four counties from Yelm to Vancouver. He became Senate Republican leader in 2020.