‘Fix’ to drug possession law chief among concerns ahead of special legislative session


The looming special session of the Washington Legislature has local lawmakers wondering whether they will be able to “fix” a state Supreme Court decision they say leads to the de facto legalization of drug possession.

During one of two town hall meetings featuring lawmakers from the 18th Legislative District on May 13, state Sen. Ann Rivers and state Reps. Greg Cheney and Stephanie McClintock discussed the issues surrounding drug possession in the state. The Republican lawmakers, fresh out of the regular legislative session that ended April 23, stopped by both Battle Ground City Hall and Washington State University Vancouver to take questions from constituents as one of a handful of town hall tours they undertook this year.

The legislators were scheduled to head back to Olympia the following Tuesday to work on passing a bill designed to address an impending expiration of state law regarding prosecution of those with illicit substances on their person.

The so-called “Blake fix” will address a split Washington State Supreme Court decision in early 2021 that turned down existing law that made drug possession a felony regardless of if a person knew they had drugs on them. Later that year, the Legislature passed a temporary measure making simple possession a misdemeanor.

That law is set to expire on July 1, after which local jurisdictions would be tasked with making their own decision on drug possession. In that scenario, without local laws in place, simple drug possession would become de facto legal, Cheney said during the Battle Ground town hall event.

“That is totally, totally unacceptable, probably to everyone in this room,” Cheney said.

In his professional career, Cheney has experience working as an attorney in the state’s drug court system. He said the mental health treatment infrastructure in the state has been broken for decades. Issues range from a lack of funding to a lack of facilities.

Having blanket decriminalization would not help deal with Washington’s drug crisis, he said.

“Yeah, let’s get people treatment who need treatment long-term … but they also have to be held accountable for the problems that they are creating for everyone around them when they are running around on the street, harassing passersby because they abused meth and they’re not in their right mind,” Cheney said.

The special session for the “Blake fix,” named after the court case where the state Supreme Court ruled on the existing drug possession law, was called by Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this month. During the regular session a bill made its way through the Legislature that would have addressed the impending end of the temporary law.

Amendments made by the House led to the bill’s defeat on the last day of the regular session by a 43-55 vote. Inslee’s call for a special session is an attempt to find a solution before the July 1 expiration.

“(Inslee) knows that this has to be fixed by July 1 or every city and county across the state is going to be doing its own thing,” McClintock said. “It’s going to be a hodgepodge and it’s not a good look for our majority party.”

The Blake fix is a symptom of an overarching addiction issue within the state, which was something Rivers, the ranking Republican on the Senate Health and Long Term Care Committee, addressed at length.

Although proponents of drug law reform often have noble intentions, without laws that can be enforced, the senator said those who are affected by addiction likely can’t get the help they need.

“You can understand what they’re trying to do. They want to get people into treatment and that is phenomenal. We would want people to get into treatment,” Rivers said. “The problem is, oftentimes unless there’s a forcing function, there’s no reason for people to get into treatment.”

Rivers said the prevalence of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, has overtaken other drugs that used to make up the bulk of illicit trafficking, but had much more constrained means of production.

“Heroin’s not on the street, because you can make fentanyl … in a laboratory, where it doesn’t matter if it’s rain or sun outside,” Rivers said.

Rivers said the lack of treatment in the state’s prison system has the potential to become deadly, as the “hard detox” from drugs people experience in jails could lead to lethal consequences in individuals who are heavily addicted to certain drugs.

She said she has been working with the Cowlitz Indian Tribe on a pilot project with Naltrexone. Also known as Vivitrol, the medication can reduce the cravings those with opioid or alcohol addictions experience.

Naltrexone “kills cravings’’ in only a few doses, Rivers said. Providers of other treatment options like methadone or suboxone charge an “encounter fee” per dose, which gives providers a reason to favor them over other avenues with a more decisive outcome, she said.

“It’s a perverse incentive to keep people addicted,” Rivers said.

She noted the face of addiction didn’t always fit within a stereotype. She recalled a family friend who had an executive position in a company and following an accident, became addicted to opioids initially prescribed for pain and ended up fatally overdosing on heroin when the supply of those opioids dried up.

“We want to attach a face to addiction, but the fact of the matter is, there are many faces that we would never even guess have this problem,” Rivers said.