The Washington State Supreme Court effectively legalized all drug possession in an ideologically audacious ruling that brought a Seattle-area policy statewide. Consequently, courts released suspects awaiting trials and police departments stopped arresting on drug possession. What’s worse, violent criminals already in jail may now see their incarceration time cut if they earned harsher sentences due to drug possession.
The decision by the court is confusing, to say the least. The 5-4 ruling — a rare split-decision from the left-wing court — deemed the state’s felony drug possession law unconstitutional because it assumes someone found with drugs on his person knowingly intended to possess. Indeed, who hasn’t reached into a jacket pocket, pulled out a bag of an illegal substance, and wondered how it got there?
Across the state, police departments announced they would no longer arrest for drug possession after a notice from the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys delivered in reaction to the ruling. In an email to its members, the group warned law enforcement agencies:
Police officers must immediately stop making arrests or issuing citations for simple possession of drugs. No search warrants. No detentions upon suspicion of simple possession awaiting canine units, etc.
“If [there is] a 21-year-old … with a baggie of heroin, and an officer goes by, he can’t do anything with the heroin. But for the 19-year-old with an open container of beer, that’s a misdemeanor,” Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl told KREM-TV. “It’s just an interesting position to be in.”
As the prevailing opinion is that the ruling is retroactive, anyone currently serving time on drug possession will have his sentence tossed or reduced if it was combined with other unrelated charges. In Skagit County alone, the prosecutor dropped more than 1,000 drug possession convictions and charges.
“The idea that we should allow people to run around and use heroin and methamphetamine, in my opinion, is wrong,” Skagit County Prosecuting Attorney Rich Weyrich argued. “A large part of the crime we see is because of heroin and meth addiction. This [ruling] is certainly going to do nothing to bring the crime rate down and will just create more victims in the community, including the addicts.”
Even the King County prosecutor was alarmed by the decision, although not because it legalized drugs. In King County (home to Seattle) personal drug possession is rarely charged because prosecutor Dan Satterberg believes drug laws don’t help addicts. Yet his office uses felony drug possession laws to punish drug dealers, a strategy that is now all but rendered moot.
All this comes following a warning from the Drug Enforcement Agency that Washington is “under siege” from Mexican drug cartels. To be sure, drugs flooding the streets are having deadly consequences, with Washington seeing a surge in overdose deaths, particularly from fentanyl-laced drugs. Imagine what it will be like now that drugs are legalized statewide.
Some lawmakers, however, think they have a fix. The law that was tossed simply reads, in part, “It is unlawful for any person to possess a controlled substance.” If the supreme court’s concern is the language of the felony possession law, the legislature could just add the word “knowingly” to the code.
Whether that would satisfy Washington state’s radical court is anyone’s guess, but Republican lawmakers moved on this assumption. With some Democrat support, this amendation looked promising. But then the large, radical wing of the Democrat Party in Washington proposed another “new” idea — or, rather, an old idea wrapped in new language by its sponsor, state Sen. Manka Dhingra.
SB 5476 is promoted as a fix to the Supreme Court decision because it adds “knowingly” to the code. But it also legalizes personal possession of any illicit substance, like heroin, cocaine, and opioid pills. In other words, it legalizes drugs in nearly the same way the court did. It’s neither a fix nor a surprising response.
In the 2021 legislative session, before the Washington State Supreme Court’s decision, Democrats tried to legalize personal possession and create unfunded, undefined addiction programs for addicts, arguing current punitive drug laws criminalize addiction and don’t address the root causes of the drug problem. Their push didn’t have enough support to pass, but luckily for them, the court intervened. Now, under the auspices of “fixing” the ruling, Democrats are pushing nearly the same drug legalization plan that previously failed.
Democrats may now feel they have political cover to pass the bill, however, arguing any bill that doesn’t legalize personal possession would be tossed by the court. For those who feel legalization is inevitable, lawmakers can use the new proposal to punish drug dealers. Surely, it’s easy to argue dealers “knowingly” possessed drugs with the intent to distribute.
Washingtonians shouldn’t fall for this disingenuous and utterly unconvincing argument. Before the Supreme Court’s involvement, drug dealers in King County evolved with the county’s announcement it would no longer charge for drug possession. Dealers carried less product and restocked more often, knowing if they were caught, they wouldn’t be charged.
The strategy mostly worked. Yet when law enforcement spends time focusing on significant drug busts rather than dealers on the streets, open-air drug dealing is prolific and the bodies of substance abusers continue to pile up.
The fate of the new legislation is unknown, but with the part-time legislature set to conclude by the end of April, the pressure is on. With COVID -19 protocols in place, the legislature hasn’t had to deal with angry voters making the trek to the state capitol to express their ire, allowing Democrats to pass bad bills.
Now, Democrats using the urgency of the issue and a tight deadline may exploit the drug crisis created by the court to forward a drug legalization agenda that’s never been popular outside of Seattle. They will almost certainly ignore the Republican proposals, too.
Ultimately, we may not have any “fix” and the Supreme Court decision will be in place until the next legislative session in 2022, a situation Democrats will almost certainly attempt to exploit politically.
They’ll argue they tried to fix the ruling but ran out of time while getting the result they wanted all along: drug legalization. The question will then become how many dead addicts does it take for Democrats to change their minds and reverse course.