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Ordinance to ban drug possession to be proposed in Snohomish County after legislative session

Without legislative action before July 1, there would be no law against drug possession at the state level.

SNOHOMISH COUNTY, Wash. — A Snohomish County councilmember said late Sunday night he plans to propose an ordinance that would ban drug possession.

Councilmember Nate Nehring sent out a statement Sunday after the 2023 legislative session wrapped up without a resolution on the future of state drug possession laws.

On July 1, the current drug possession statutes will expire, and without legislative action, it would become legal to possess and use drugs.

“Addressing the Blake Decision and the issue of drug possession was one of the most important tasks of the legislature this year. While there were legislators from both sides working in good faith, ultimately an agreement could not be reached. This is unfortunate but opens the door for counties and cities to address this issue at the local level,” said Nehring. 

Nehring went on to call drugs one of "the most pressing public safety issues our communities face."

Senate Bill 5536 was voted down by the House on Sunday night, which had been intensely negotiated to serve the interests of legislators pushing for a combination of both treatment and punishment.

"We cannot accept decriminalization in the middle of a fentanyl crisis," said Gov. Jay Inslee.

The current state law, which expires on July 1, classifies drug possession as a misdemeanor on the third arrest with a maximum sentence of 90 days in jail, up to $1,000 in fines, or both after a third arrest. 

Senate Bill 5536 proposed a harsher penalty: a gross misdemeanor, which carries a maximum jail sentence of 364 days in jail, $5,000 in fines, or both.

Inslee shared his reaction to Sunday's vote in the hours after.

"What I told the folks, was either a gross misdemeanor or misdemeanor I would sign, because we need a bill," Inslee said.

Since the negotiated bill did not pass, drug possession may become legalized statewide come July 1, when the current law expires. Unless something happens before then, all enforcement power will go to local jurisdictions.

Still, despite the end of the legislative session, Inslee urged leaders of the chambers Sunday to find "enough votes" to pass something that will put statewide criminal penalties in place before then.

Inslee has the ability to call lawmakers into a special session, but it is yet to be seen exactly how that will play out.

House lawmakers who spoke in favor of the bill Sunday stated that they believe it is urgent to act quickly.

"Everything that comes with substance use disorder – defecation on the streets, needles in our parks, all of the things we've heard about that we fear-- will be worse if this bill fails," said Rep. Monica Stonier, D-House Majority Floor Leader.

Inslee previously praised the negotiated bill, saying on Twitter, "Ultimately treatment is what really works with people. But they also preserved a criminal sanction, to make sure people understand they have to go into treatment or there is jail time."

Drug possession was a felony before 2021, but Washington State's Supreme Court threw that out. Inslee said earlier in the weekend he believes the state has needed to reform its drug enforcement and treatment laws ever since.

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