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Inslee announces Special Session, County leadership split on illegal drug policy

SNOHOMISH COUNTY, Wash., May 3, 2023—Hours after Snohomish County led the state in proposing an ordinance to recriminalize illegal drugs after the failure of legislature’s passage of the “Blake fix,” Governor Jay Inslee announced that he will call a special session to begin on May 16 that will focus on passing a new drug possession law.

“My office and I have been meeting with legislators from all four caucuses and I am very optimistic about reaching an agreement that can pass both chambers,” Inslee said. “Cities and counties are eager to see a statewide policy that balances accountability and treatment, and I believe we can produce a bipartisan bill that does just that. Details are still being negotiated, but caucus leaders share the desire to pass a bill. I believe that starting the clock on May 16 will put us on a path to getting the job done this month.”

The ordinance, sponsored by Council President Jared Mead and Council Vice President Nate Nehring, is in response to the passage of SB-5476 in 2021 that contains a sunset provision to Washington State’s penalties for control substances and the state legislature’s failure by the end of the 2023 Legislative Session to address the state Supreme Court’s 2021 Blake decision.

The so-called “Blake fix” was the only remaining must-do item legislators didn’t finish during the regular legislative session that ended on April 23. In 2021, the Washington Supreme Court overturned the state’s felony drug possession law. Legislators adopted a temporary misdemeanor policy that expires on July 1. In the absence of a statewide policy, several cities and counties have announced their intent to pass their own ordinances which would create a confusing patchwork of policies, treatment options and penalties.

At its early morning Administrative Meeting on Tuesday, May 2, the Snohomish County Council approved, with a vote of 3-2, a Public Hearing for May 17 to propose an ordinance re-criminalizing controlled and counterfeit substances making it a gross misdemeanor. Treatment options as an alternative to incarceration are also included in the ordinance.

Councilmembers Megan Dunn (D-Everett) and Strom Peterson (D-Lynnwood) voted against the proposed May 17 date.

“I am reluctant to move forward with the May 17 deadline,” said Councilman Peterson during the meeting. “I think setting a time and date for the first week in June would be a lot wiser so we are in fact passing the right policy.”

Councilman Peterson, who also serves on the state legislature voted for a much weaker version of SB-5536, also known as the “Blake Fix,” in the House on April 11. Unlike the Senate’s version, the House version proposed limiting the charge for possession to a misdemeanor and expunge a conviction if that person has no additional arrests, charges, or convictions within a two-year period of the present conviction. The House’s version would also make knowingly possessing and using controlled substances in a public place by injection, inhalation, ingestion, or any other means a misdemeanor and subject to diversion programs, undercutting recent ordinances passed by local municipalities.

After the controversial placing of an Opioid Treatment Program (OTP) next to a local Boys & Girls Club in Lynnwood earlier this year which erupted in weeks of protests, the House’s amendment surprisingly would also remove the requirement for Washington State Department of Health (DOH) to hold public hearings of the locations of OTPs within the local community.

Peterson did tell the Lynnwood Times in a May 6 statement that although he prefers a simple misdemeanor for both drug possession and public drug use but is willing to compromise. No Republicans along with 15 Democrats supported SB-5536 resulting in the bill’s failure to pass the legislature on April 23.

“I share the same concerns around a rushed public hearing,” Councilwoman Dunn said. “I think we need a robust public process. We need to have outreach and talk to our courts; training for our officers; office of public defense, prosecuting office, outreach to our cities, other counties. We need to know that the offramps are there for treatment. I want some more clarification of the public portion that would remain in effect and preemption laws.”

Dunn proposed a June 7 and June14 public hearing date.

Councilman Nehring emphasized the criticality of moving forward with the ordinance and that any delays will remove any public pressure on the legislature to act.

“If the County waits on this, from my view, the legislators I have spoken with on the minority party have not been reached out to about a deal,” Nehring said. “So, my fear would be that whatever bill ends up happening, if there is a Special Session, would not meet the needs of our community.”

Council President Mead concurred with Nehring, recalling how the legislature failed to have a Special Session during the pandemic when it said it would.

“I don’t necessarily think the legislature has the credibility to the point I would pause on taking local action,” Mead said.

Mead also clarified that the proposed two-week timeframe to host a public hearing is routine and not rushed as alleged by Councilwoman Dunn.

House Republican Leader Drew Stokesbary released the following statement on Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement of a special session on May 16.

“House Republicans remain committed to passing statewide legislation that provides opportunities for those who are willing to undergo treatment and accountability for those who aren’t. However, we will not support a bill that falls short of either of these goals and simultaneously prevents local governments from enacting their own solutions.”

The Legislature has earmarked more than $600 million in new state funding for myriad behavioral health services, including additional treatment facilities and services for people with substance use disorders, according to the Governor’s office.

Special Sessions are 30 days, but Inslee says that if legislators come with an agreed-upon proposal, they should be able to finish within several days and adjourn promptly.


ARTICLE UPDATE [7:20 a.m., May 8, 2023]: Strom Peterson clarified with the Lynnwood Times that although he supports a simple misdemeanor for drug possession and public drug, he is willing to compromise.

FEATURED PHOTO: Office of the Governor. 230306 Finnish President Niinisto Visits 44, taken on March 6, 2023.

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