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Washington governor signs new law keeping drug possession illegal

<i>Lindsey Wasson/AP</i><br/>Washington Gov. Jay Inslee
Lindsey Wasson/AP
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee

By Taylor Romine, Paradise Afshar and Nouran Salahieh, CNN

(CNN) — Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed a drug possession bill into law Tuesday following a special legislative session that was held to prevent the possible legalization of all drug possession in the state.

The state had been on the brink of decriminalizing possession of drugs like meth or fentanyl statewide as a temporary law that made possession a misdemeanor was set to expire this summer.

The new law – in addition to retaining criminal penalties for drug possession – boosts resources to help those struggling with addiction, providing millions for drug treatment and recovery services, according to the governor.

“This bill is not designed to fill our jails, it’s designed to fill our treatment centers,” Inslee said.

Washington State House representatives voted 83-to-13 to pass the bill Tuesday, after the Senate approved the adopted text 43-to-6 earlier in the day, the bill record shows.

The law “strikes a sensible, a common sense and effective policy between accountability and treatment,” Inslee said during a bill signing Tuesday.

The new law increases penalties for knowing possession of a controlled substance or counterfeit substance to a gross misdemeanor, which will be punishable by up to 180 days in jail for the first two convictions, a $1,000 fine or both, the law says. In the previous law set to expire in July, it was classified as a misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to 90 days in jail, a $1,000 fine or both, a bill digest says.

It also creates a pretrial diversion program, giving those charged with possession of prohibited substances the option to agree to be part of a substance use disorder treatment program in exchange for the state dismissing the charge, according to the bill digest.

Pressure had been building to pass new legislation since a 2021 ruling known as the “Blake case,” in which the Washington Supreme Court overturned the state law that made drug possession a felony, saying that the law was unconstitutional because it did not require prosecutors to prove the offender had criminal intent.

In response, lawmakers passed a temporary law that made drug possession a misdemeanor as they worked to pass a longer-term fix. That law was set to expire July 1, but the law passed Tuesday will now replace the previous law.

“This bill I think has been a very thoughtful process rather than some emotional response to a devastating problem,” the governor said. “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.”

The bill digest says approximately $51 million is allocated to this law, with $44 million to be invested in drug treatment and recovery services, according to Inslee.

Under the new law, courts are required to impose minimum jail sentences on those charged with drug possession who refuse or abandon substance use disorder treatment, and to vacate convictions of possession for defendants who successfully complete treatment. The law also enacts the recommendation of the Substance Use and Recovery Services Advisory Committee to expand treatment and harm reduction programs.

“This bill isn’t perfect, but it is a strong step in the right direction and addresses major shortcomings” in the previous law, Washington State Senate Republican Leader John Braun and House Republican Leader Drew Stokesbary said in a statement.

“This policy will provide opportunities to those who seek treatment for drug addiction and hold accountable those who refuse it,” the statement says. “We applaud everyone involved in the negotiations for their dedication to finding a workable solution. Public safety has been the top priority for Republicans this session. Allowing the legalization of hard drugs was never an option for us.”

Washington House Democrats also praised the passing of the law Tuesday, saying in a statement the law “takes strides toward setting up an effective system for outreach, treatment and recovery while providing avenues for accountability with plenty of offramps into treatment.”

“Our communities deserve to feel safe and comfortable in public spaces,” Representative Jamila Taylor said in the statement after the house passed the law. “This bill recognizes the harm that public use causes our communities by creating the crime of public use. More importantly, it focuses on the most up-to-date science on recovery, working to connect people to treatment, housing, services, and employment opportunities.”

The majority of the law will go into effect on July 1, 2023, while a provision requiring forensic labs to aim to complete analysis of evidence within 45 days of receipt will go into effect on January 1, 2025, the law text says.

The new Washington law comes amid renewed debates across the country about the best policies to address drug use and addiction as the country confronts a fentanyl drug crisis.

About 108,000 people died of a drug overdose in the US in the 12-month period from July 2021 to July 2022, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And nearly 70,000 people in the US died of drug overdoses that involved fentanyl in 2021, almost a four-fold increase over five years, according to the CDC.

In February 2021, Oregon became the first state to officially decriminalize the possession and personal use of all drugs. While possession of small amounts of drugs is decriminalized in Oregon, possession of larger amounts could result in a misdemeanor charge.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Eric Levenson contributed to this report.

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