Washington Supreme Court won’t reconsider ruling decriminalizing simple drug possession

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The Washington Supreme Court has declined to reconsider its ruling that effectively decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs, leaving the question of the statute's future up to state legislators working on a short timeline.

In a brief order issued on the afternoon of Tuesday, April 20, the state's highest court declined a request from the Spokane County Prosecutor's Office to amend its decision in State v. Blake, a February ruling that invalidated the state's simple drug possession criminal statute as a violation of due process.

Washington lawmakers have four days to decide how to act on the Supreme Court decision.

Last week, the Senate passed a bill that would make possession of a controlled substance a gross misdemeanor, with treatment as the preferred option for the first two offenses. A gross misdemeanor could mean up to a year in jail or up to a $5,000 fine.

That bill passed Wednesday, April 21 out of a House committee, but it looks slightly different. The new version would make possession of a controlled substance a misdemeanor, which could be punishable by up to 90 days in jail or up to a $1,000 fine.

The House's version also focuses more on the treatment side of drug possession, giving slightly more guidance and resources for dealing with recovery.

It's unclear how the Senate will react to these changes if it makes it back to the floor before the end of session. The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn at midnight on Sunday.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson issued a statement Tuesday calling on legislators to end criminal penalties for those possessing small amounts of drugs.

"The Legislature now has a unique opportunity to reject criminal penalties for non-commercial drug possession. Let's focus our resources on treatment and protecting the public from serious and violent crime," Ferguson said in a statement.

The court case challenging the previous drug possession law was filed by a Spokane County woman who'd been arrested while wearing a pair of pants given to her that contained drugs, leading to a challenge of a state law that didn't require prosecutors to prove the person knowingly possessed controlled substances for a judge or jury to find them guilty.

Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell had asked judges to adopt a less sweeping consenting opinion that the office believed would not apply to previously adjudicated cases. The law dates back to the 1970s, and the decision to overturn could apply to hundreds of inmates in the state, as well as others who'd paid previous fines.

Instead, judges issued an amending order clarifying some language in their original ruling, but leaving the decision largely in place.

Haskell did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday on the next steps for his office.

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