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Senate Bill Seeks to Re-Criminalize Drug Possession

On April 15th, 2021, the Senate passed SB 5476 by 28-20, made in response to the ruling from State of Washington vs Blake which struck down the existing language for felony possession in state law. The bill as proposed would allow small possession to remain de-criminalized for adults over 21 years of age, but would treat larger amounts as a felony and underage possession as a gross misdemeanor.

Supporters of the bill, many from law enforcement and prosecutors, want tools reinstated for drug crimes they feel are necessary to handle more serious crimes. Some prosecutors have even advocated a felony punishment for underage possession. Critics worry that this is a continuation of treating substance addiction and recreational activity as a criminal issue rather than a public health issue. They warn this policy unnecessarily damages the lives and futures of people using controlled substances, and the state should work out alternatives other than law enforcement.

The issue was made in court by someone charged with possession who, according to the case, was unaware of controlled substances found in the coin pocket of their pants. The court found that under this law as written anyone could be charged with a serious crime, even without criminal intent. SB 5476 seeks to solve this problem by limited de-criminalization and adding the language “knowingly” to the possession charge. Contrary to this method, HB 1499 uses multiple approaches to the issue with a more public health focus, but it has not gone to a committee.

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