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Marysville 'recriminalizes' drugs after high court ruling

The city changed an ordinance to make possession of a small amount of drugs a crime after the state Supreme Court legalized drug possession.

MARYSVILLE, Wash. — Police in Marysville felt handcuffed after last month's Washington Supreme Court decision that effectively made small amounts of drugs, including meth and heroin, legal.

In response, the Marysville City Council voted this week to amend a local ordinance to make simple drug possession a crime once again.

Marysville Sgt. Matt Goolsby was on patrol last week when he came upon a woman smoking meth in her car.

Chief Erik Scairpon was on board for a ride-along, and couldn't believe what he heard.

"Her statement to us was basically, isn't this all legal, now? And that really causes a problem for law enforcement in this state," Scairpon said.

In its bombshell decision, the justices ruled 5-4 that it's unconstitutional to arrest someone for drug possession if that person didn't know they were holding drugs at the time.

"I was like, wow! This is nuts!" said Marysville City Councilman Mark James.

To him, and many of those in law enforcement, the ruling seemed like a "get out of jail free card."

In a unanimous, 7-0 vote, the Marysville City Council changed one word in the local ordinance, making it illegal for anyone to "knowingly" have any amount of drugs in their possession.

"It filled a void that needed to be filled," said James.

For the past three years, the Marysville Police Department has embedded social workers with their officers to try to get addicts off the streets.

They've been successful in getting at least 160 people enrolled in treatment. Ninety-three have graduated from treatment and 192 have secured housing.

James said the ordinance change will allow police to continue using the threat of jail time as an incentive to go to rehab.

"We use it as a compassionate tool, not a hammer. People think we're gonna go out and bust everybody for drugs. That's not what we're about. It's more about getting people clean and having compassion," James said. "We've got a treatment program for you or you're going to jail. It's your choice."

Simple drug possession in Marysville is now a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine.

It was a felony under the previous state law.

Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell expressed skepticism as to how much a misdemeanor will really motivate people to get clean. 

"The carrot and stick approach has clearly not worked," Cornell said. "And the stick just got smaller."

Cornell warned cities that follow Marysville's lead will now have to pay for jailing and prosecuting all those possession cases.

"You have to ask yourself whether the limited resources of city government are better spent on incarceration versus standing up the provision of treatment and services," he said. "There are invariably going to be people who are going to go to jail and cost governments a considerable amount of money. We're simply shifting the cost from the state to local governments. Constituents will have to ask themselves, is this how you want your money spent?"

Marysville is believed to be the first city in the state to have changed its laws after the Supreme Court decision. Lewis County is considering a similar move. Many more are expected to follow.