FILE — Washington police traffic stop

A King County Sheriff’s deputy holds a training weapon as he practices a traffic stop during a class at Washington state’s Basic Law Enforcement Academy in Burien, Wash., this summer. 

(The Center Square) – Washington lawmakers passed a bill Sunday restoring criminal penalties for drug possession that critics believe either goes too far or not far enough to treat offenders.

Senate Bill 5476 was introduced earlier this spring in response to a ruling from the state supreme court in one case, State v. Blake, decriminalizing unknowing drug possession, wiping most records clean and reducing sentences.

The bill, sponsored by a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers, reclassifies drug possession as a gross misdemeanor with fines up to $125. First- and second-time convictions that occurred before the ruling would be vacated in retrial and defendants referred to treatment programs.

More than 100 people behind bars and 7,000 people sentenced to community supervision could see their cases overturned because of State v. Blake, according to the state Department of Corrections. Another 2,600 prisoners and 3,900 people under community supervision could be resentenced, the agency reported.

The Washington Association of Cities and Counties projected retrials could cost up to $100 million – a figure local leaders said SB 5476 would not cover. The bill puts up $24.8 million in specific appropriations and sets up a dedicated account to further reimburse local and county governments with state money. 

Since its first reading in late March, the bill lost the support of Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, who voted against it this month on the grounds it left too much decision-making up to the courts.

Based on 2012 data from the Washington State Center for Court Research, 61.2% of participants in court-ordered drug programs spanning 23 state courts completed them.

"I urge lawmakers to take a hard look at the impacts of continued criminalization when bringing treatment services to scale, which is both less expensive and will help people out of the cycle of arrest, incarceration, and relapse," Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said. "We can do better."

SB 5476 includes a three-strike rule that requires police to refer someone to drug treatment on their first two offenses. The third time is considered a misdemeanor and subject to fines.

The bill succeeded in the House on Saturday and narrowly cleared the Senate on Sunday. It received three "no" votes from Sens. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle; Joe Nguyen, D-Seattle; and Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch.

Sheldon, who often votes along Republican lines, expressed concerns last week SB 5476 was too soft on crime. Hasegawa and Nguyen said the bill gave police too much leeway in making traffic stops and arrests.

Based on 2019 data from the American Equity and Justice Group taken from the state's Caseload Forecast Council, judges issued sentences for 126,175 drug possession cases between 1999 and 2019. Black people saw convictions at much higher rates in every county save for six, two of which have no Black residents, according to U.S. Census data. In King County, home to the widest disparities statewide, 40.2% of cases involved Black people, 5% involved Asians, 1.5% involved Indigenous People and 50.5% involved white people. In 2019, King County's population was 7% Black, 19.9% Asian, 1% Native and 67.1% white.

The bill's provisions expire by July 1, 2023. SB 5476 also allows judges to set personal use amounts for drug possession laws by that point.

If signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee, SB 5476 will take effect immediately upon receiving his signature. The governor has 20 days to act.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.