House Passes Bill to Address Addiction Crisis and Update Possession Statute

OLYMPIA – The Washington State House of Representatives passed an amended version of Senate Bill 5536 on Tuesday evening, updating Washington’s statute for possession of controlled substances and creating a comprehensive system of outreach, treatment, and recovery services. The bill is the Legislature’s proposal to address the 2021 Washington Supreme Court Blake decision, which found Washington’s strict liability law for drug possession unconstitutional. Following that ruling, the Legislature declined to return to a felony for-possession model, instead choosing to build a system focused on access to treatment and recovery. The 2021 bill set the penalty for possession at a simple misdemeanor with two required pre-arrest referrals to services. SB 5536 retains a simple misdemeanor as the sentence for possession, drops the pre-arrest referrals to services, but adds a requirement for pre-trial diversion if a person is arrested solely for possession. The bill passed the House with a bipartisan vote of 54-41.

“We need to address the root causes of the substance use disorder (SUD) crisis as well as the problems that it creates in our communities,” said Rep. Jamila Taylor, D-Federal Way, who authored a striking amendment adopted on the House floor. “We are facing an epic public crisis that requires a complex response that involves the community, the behavioral health system, law enforcement, and the courts. The types of public nuisance crimes that often accompany SUD are still crimes, but for years we have used possession as the tool that we use to enforce those other laws. This doesn’t get people into recovery, disproportionately impacts lower-income people and people of color, and does nothing to solve public nuisance crimes. Our communities deserve to feel safe and comfortable in public spaces. This bill recognizes the harm that public use does to our communities by creating the crime of public use. Importantly, it focuses on the most up-to-date science on recovery, working to connect people to treatment, housing, services, human connection, and employment opportunities. We are building a statewide system that creates accountability through community engagement and offers hope and connection to those in our community who are struggling.”

SB 5536 establishes a pretrial diversion program for persons charged with possession. A defendant would be referred to an applicable program (Recovery Navigator Program, Arrest & Jail Alternatives, LEAD), which would perform a biopsychosocial assessment. Based on that assessment, the defendant would either be referred to treatment and services or if they were determined not to be in need of any services, be sentenced to up to 120 hours of community service. The defendant would then have their charges dropped if they substantially complied with treatment and services for six months or completed their community service. The bill also creates post-conviction probation that will suspend a sentence as long as a person completes a biopsychosocial assessment and substantially complies with recommended treatment and services or submits evidence of completed community service.

When we provide access to quality outreach, treatment, and recovery support services, recovery is not only possible, but probable” said Rep. Lauren Davis, D-Shoreline. “Substance use disorder is a chronic, progressive, relapsing disease that must be treated with a chronic care model. This bill builds on our statewide investments in providing meaningful, evidence-based pathways to recovery for individuals in active addiction. This legislation recognizes that recovery is born of hope and meaningful connection.”

The bill also addresses the collateral consequences that a conviction can have on a person’s housing, employment, and educational opportunities, by requiring the automatic vacation of any possession conviction if a person spends two years in the community without a subsequent arrest, charge, or conviction.

“When I returned to my community after being sentenced to prison, in part for a Blake conviction, the lack of employment and housing opportunities was a massive stressor,” said Rep. Tarra Simmons, D-Bremerton, the first formerly incarcerated state legislator in Washington history. “Recovery is not a straight line. It can often feel like you take one step forward and two steps back. The collateral consequences of a conviction do not help people recover. They increase the likelihood that someone will start using again. Recovery happens when people have the support of people who care about them and the opportunity to see a better life. While this bill does continue a criminal penalty for possession, which will not help people with SUD recover, it does take massive steps toward building a system that centers a person’s wellbeing and recognizes their humanity.”

Recognizing the need for expanded treatment options and programs in every part of the state, the bill takes several steps to ensure that there is an adequate supply of both providers and facilities. It creates a grant program to fund educational and employment opportunities for people recovering from SUD. Additionally, it cuts red tape related to siting of treatment facilities. It also requires the Health Care Authority (HCA) to fund the establishment of an adequate number of recovery residences across the state and exempts them from property taxes through 2033. The Recovery Navigator Program, which was established in the 2021 bill, is expanded. HCA is also directed to develop payment structures for health engagement hubs to serve as all-in-one locations where a person who uses drugs can access a range of services including high-quality medical treatment like wound care, harm reduction supplies, referrals or access to methadone, and linkages to housing, treatment, and transportation services.

“Our goal with this bill is to recognize the urgent public health problem that substance use disorder represents and focus our resources on getting people into treatment and recovery,” said Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, Chair of the House Community Safety, Justice, & Reentry Committee. “I am encouraged about the comprehensive nature of this response. It ramps up recovery support that is proven to work, builds out low-barrier access to treatment, and provides avenues for accountability with plenty of offramps to treatment. The heart of this bill is recognizing that fundamentally this is a public health problem with a public health response while still giving communities tools to address public safety.”

SB 5536 passed the Senate on March 3rd with a bipartisan vote of 28-21. Because the bill was amended in the House, it now heads back to the Senate for concurrence.