Washington State Dems Continue Fight To Decriminalize Fentanyl

As the state of Washington grapples with the potential decriminalization of fentanyl, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) has called a special legislative session in a desperate attempt to address the issue. The Democratic-controlled legislature has been unable to pass a bill addressing drug possession penalties, resulting in the automatic decriminalization of hard drugs like fentanyl if no action is taken by July 1.

The urgency to address the matter is not without cause. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data reveals a disturbing increase in fentanyl-related deaths from 6 per 100,000 people in 2016 to 22 per 100,000 in 2021. Fentanyl was involved in two-thirds of overdose deaths in 2021, resulting in nearly 70,000 lives lost.

This potential decriminalization stems from a 2021 Washington State Supreme Court ruling that declared the state’s drug possession felony law too severe. In response, the legislature enacted a temporary replacement, making drug possession a misdemeanor. However, this temporary solution is set to expire this summer, leaving Washington facing the possibility of joining Oregon as the second state to decriminalize hard drugs.

The State House recently rejected a bill to replace the temporary criminal code on drug possession by a 55-43 margin, with Democrats and Republicans opposing it. Democratic opponents argued that the bill punishes drug users needing treatment. At the same time, Republican critics claimed it interferes with local government’s ability to regulate drug use.

Inslee expressed optimism in reaching an agreement, stating, “Cities and counties are eager to see a statewide policy that balances accountability and treatment, and I believe we can produce a bipartisan bill that does just that.” The special session will provide a crucial opportunity for lawmakers to collaborate on a solution that satisfies both sides of the aisle.

As fentanyl deaths continue to plague the nation, it is evident that a balanced approach to drug possession penalties is required. The proposed bill, Senate Bill 5536, would classify drug possession as a gross misdemeanor, carrying a sentence of up to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine. However, it failed to pass in the House, leaving the state in a precarious position.

While some Republican lawmakers believe the bill didn’t impose strict enough policies, House Minority Leader Drew Stokesbary stated, “House Republicans remain committed to passing statewide legislation that provides opportunities for those willing to undergo treatment and accountability for those who aren’t.”

The upcoming special session, expected to begin on May 16, will allow both parties to work together in crafting legislation that balances treatment and accountability. But, as Inslee’s office believes that a new law can be processed within days if an agreement is reached, the pressure is on for the Washington state legislature to act decisively.

As the threat of fentanyl decriminalization looms over Washington, the state’s lawmakers must work collaboratively to achieve a balanced, bipartisan approach to drug possession penalties. The fate of thousands of lives hangs in the balance, making it more crucial than ever for the state legislature to find a solution to this growing crisis.

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