By Emily Fitzgerald and Claudia Yaw / The Chronicle
Lewis County is looking to enact its own ordinance allowing local law enforcement to continue arresting individuals after a state Supreme Court case that recently struck down Washington’s drug possession law.
State v. Blake ruled Washington’s statute unconstitutional since it punished violators regardless of whether they knew they were in possession of controlled substances or not.
After individuals were released from jail and ejected from Lewis County Drug Court as a result of the ruling, Lewis County officials, including Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer and Sheriff Rob Snaza, lambasted the court decision, saying it will pave the way for more drug use and overdoses, which already skyrocketed last year.
“Based upon the Blake decision, people under the age of 18 can be ticketed for possessing tobacco. A person under the age of 21 can be imprisoned for possession of alcohol. However, possessing controlled substances such as methamphetamine, heroin, or fentanyl, regardless of age, is now legal,” Meyer wrote in a letter to local law enforcement agencies. “… the legislative message is clear: ‘Don’t smoke or drink. Do use and possess drugs.’”
A county ordinance to re-criminalize drug possession, Meyer wrote, could “save lives” by getting violators into diversion programs like Drug Court.
“This isn’t a goal to get more people in jail. We have plenty of people in jail. This isn’t a goal to label more people as convicts,” Meyer told county commissioners Monday. “Our goal is to help people break these chains, make the changes they need and become productive members of society.”
The Feb. 25 supreme court decision aligned Washington with 49 other states in decriminalizing the unknowing possession of drugs. The ruling is retroactive, dismissing past charges of possession of a controlled substance, regardless of whether possession was intended or not. Though local officials have been critical, others have applauded the decision, citing racially disparate enforcement of drug laws.
Local law enforcement officials have expressed frustration and concern that, without the “accountability” of a felony charge in court, drug use within the community will rise and lead to other, more serious crimes.
In a recent meeting of the Lewis County Republican Party, Snaza said State v. Blake “sucks,” and Morton Police Chief Roger Morningstar balked at the ruling, saying his new K9 — which was “quite an investment” — is now useless. Meyer and Centralia Police Chief Stacey Denham also said that law enforcement would instead take opportunities to arrest individuals for possessing drug paraphernalia, including things like needles or bags — a gross misdemeanor charge.
In Lewis County, 20 people were released from jail and between 50 to 60 active arrest warrants were quashed as a result of the State v. Blake decision. Hundreds more past convictions are in the process of being dismissed, and courts are calling people back in for resentencing, either to offer restitution for a sentence already carried out or to resentence other felony convictions potentially affected by the statute due to Washington judges’ consideration of felony history when setting sentences.
Lewis County’s planned ordinance — which officials are still crafting — would prohibit individuals from “knowingly” possessing controlled substances. On Monday, Snaza said Lewis County could be the first local jurisdiction to implement a local ordinance in response to State v. Blake.
Meanwhile, a bill in the state Legislature could also re-criminalize drug possession. Senate Bill 5464, sponsored by Issaquah Democrat Sen. Mark Mullet, was introduced March 1, but has so far stalled. Similar to Lewis County’s planned ordinance, the bill would reenact previous drug possession rules and add “knowingly” to the language of the law.
County officials have warned that the bill could die in the Legislature, as not all lawmakers are on the same page about how to move forward. For Lewis County commissioners, the question now is whether to make possession in the county a gross misdemeanor or a felony.
Prior to State v. Blake, possession of a controlled substance in Washington was a Class C felony, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and fines up to $10,000. A gross misdemeanor carries a maximum sentence of 364 days in prison, and up to $5,000 in fines.
A gross misdemeanor, according to Chief Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Eric Eisenberg, would make the county’s ordinance “more obviously legal,” in case the local rule is challenged. A county ordinance carrying a felony, he said, would be “unusual.” But Eisenberg and Meyer told commissioners that felony charges would likely be more “coercive” to get people into Drug Court.
Lewis County’s push to recriminalize possession comes as conversations over policing and criminal justice dominate the state Legislature. A bill to keep young kids out of the criminal justice system elicited similar arguments from Lewis County officials, with Juvenile Court Administrator Shad Hall arguing that his program is crucial to getting young people connected to mental health, addiction and mentoring programs.
But other advocates have balked at the idea, saying that criminalizing behavior isn’t an effective strategy, and that resources can exist outside the criminal justice system. Hall, however, said that in rural Lewis County, those resources are “much more scarce.”
Drug Court Administrator Stephanie Miller — who reported Monday that as many as 50% of people ejected from Drug Court due to State v. Blake have since relapsed — also contends that the program can create accountability for those otherwise reluctant to seek out resources.