Monroe wants drug possession illegal again
after state law got wiped
MONROE — When the state Supreme Court voided any penalty for the possession of illegal drugs by ruling the state’s possession law as unconstitutional because how
it was written didn’t offer people the benefit of the doubt, the ruling also unintentionally took away a method used by cops and judges to steer drug users toward treatment.
When an officer cited somebody for drug possession, it opened the door to funneling them into meeting with a social worker.
Mayor Geoffrey Thomas wants a city-level law to re-criminalize drug possession, which the City Council may consider in coming weeks. He says this is important for turning people’s lives around.
“If we can intervene today ... that is the moral response to intercede to make that change and move away from addiction,” Thomas said. “This is a response that is moral.”
The city of Marysville implemented a similar rule in March that makes it a gross misdemeanor to knowingly possess drugs without a prescription. Mill Creek is considering a similar law as of press time, with Mill Creek’s next conversation scheduled for Tuesday, April 13 after press time.
The state Legislature is working to re-establish the drug possession law from multiple approaches, including to simply rewrite it better. Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond) has proposed personal use allowances for small quantities of illegal drugs, which is what Oregon has, while prohibiting open public consumption, which is like how alcohol and marijuana is controlled.
Cities are writing their own local codes in case the state Legislature doesn’t produce a replacement law before its session ends this year.
The possession law gave police a way to step in.
“We have to have a reason to contact people, so this is a well-used tool” within its embedded social worker program, Police Chief Jeff Jolley told a council committee last week.
The city’s Municipal Court Judge, Jessica Ness, has four to six active cases where the people are going through treatment right now, Thomas said.
Jolley said the embedded social worker team uses discretion to draw people toward getting help through the county’s Jail Diversion Center. The center’s purpose is in part to get substance abusers off drugs instead of locking them up for low-level crimes such as drug possession.
City laws penalizing drug possession will stand up in court because the Blake decision didn’t just strip the penalty for simple drug possession, it deleted out the whole law at the state level, said Marysville’s city attorney Jon Walker.
Because the Blake decision created a vacuum, “nothing in state law pre-empts city and county police powers” to set local penalties, Walker said. The strongest penalty a city can give is a gross misdemeanor; cities can’t assign felonies.
Monroe plans to use Marysville’s law as a cookie-cutter template, Jolley said.
Walker said police benefit from clear-cut rules, and the Blake decision “takes away a lot of certainty” on how to approach drug use.
A memo from Monroe’s city prosecutor Chad Krepps advises that, after Blake, police should not take law enforcement action for both the simple possession of drugs or for drug paraphernalia.
It’s not clear if the Blake decision also unintentionally legalized open drug consumption. Spokane television station KREM-2 reported that the state’s drug possession law made it illegal to even be handling the drugs, so separate state laws about consuming them weren’t developed.
Drug trafficking, manufacturing and dealing remain a statewide felony. The Blake decision didn’t touch these areas.
The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, a statewide organization, called on legislators to at least make it illegal to knowingly possess drugs. In a March 24 letter, it called on legislators to go deeper: “We ask that the legislature address the problems the court decision created and direct more support for substances abuse prevention, treatment, and recovery. The legalization of controlled substances without substantial commitments to build and fund the infrastructure to address the root causes of addiction represent the worst of both worlds.”
Thomas said he can spend city money on housing arrested people in jail or spend money on social programs to help people out of addiction. Getting people out of addiction is his preference.
“We acknowledge just sending people to jail doesn’t solve the root cause,” Thomas said at last week’s meeting.
How did the court decide?
The state Supreme Court made a 5-4 decision in State v. Blake by weighing the evidence of a drug charge appealed by a woman in Spokane, Shannon Blake.
A baggie of methamphetamine was in the pocket of a pair of jeans Blake received from a friend. After an unrelated arrest, the drugs surfaced when jail staff searched her clothing. She neither was a drug user nor knew of the baggie in her secondhand pants.
The state’s strict drug possession law universally made any illicit drug possession a felony.
On Feb. 25, the court majority opined that this is an overreach that “criminalizes unknowing, and hence innocent, passivity” and deemed it unconstitutional. Basically, since people didn’t know they were carrying drugs, it goes opposite to the intent to regulate drug possession and constitutionally violates due process. The verdict describes it as a overstep of police power created by the state Legislature.
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