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Drug possession bill passed by Washington state Legislature on first day of special session

The state House passed a compromised version of Senate Bill 5536 with a vote of 83-13 Tuesday afternoon.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — The Washington state Legislature passed a compromise drug possession bill on May 16, the first day of a special session called by Gov. Jay Inslee.

The state House passed a compromised version of Senate Bill 5536 with a vote of 83-13 Tuesday afternoon, following a Senate vote of 43-6 earlier in the day. 

It now heads to Inslee's desk for final approval.

The bill sets the penalty for possession of controlled substances as a gross misdemeanor with a maximum confinement time of six months for the first two convictions. Any fine for any conviction is capped at a maximum of $1,000. 

The bill also creates a system for a pre-trial diversion program to get people into treatment. The bill requires mandatory early conviction vacation if the person in question can complete treatment or have "substantially complied" with a recovery program or similar services for six months. 

The bill criminalizes using drugs in public.

“It is our deep hope that this will help people away from the scourge of addiction that it will reduce crime overall in our communities and will help our children be safe from the scourge of drug addiction,” Inslee said. 

The Washington Supreme Court in 2021 struck down a state law making drug possession a felony. It was unconstitutional, the court said, because it did not require prosecutors to prove that someone knowingly had the drugs. Washington was the only state in the country without that requirement.

In response, lawmakers passed a temporary measure giving themselves two years to build a long-term policy.

“I think the message is getting out, I’m appreciative of all our legislators who were willing to come back to the special session I think they heard from their communities loud and clear,” said Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus.

As this year’s session ended late last month, Senate Bill 5536 — billed as a compromise — was voted down in the Democratic-controlled House, 55-43.

Washington state's drug possession law is set to expire July 1. Without a new law, possession of personal-use amounts of drugs would have been decriminalized. 

Inslee has signaled he will approve a compromise bill. Once signed, most provisions of the bill will go into effect on July 1.

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