Drugs are still illegal in Washington state, but you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise in 2021.
As of this year, it’s almost impossible to get arrested for drug possession in Washington thanks to the state’s new drug law, which one sheriff described as close to “unenforceable.”
Cops can no longer arrest someone for possession of drugs until the third time they catch them, something that has proven extremely difficult to track as drug overdoses tick up across the state.
The changes began in February when the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the state’s statute making drug possession a felony was unconstitutional, effectively decriminalizing drugs for several months.
In May, the state replaced the old law with a new statute making drug possession a misdemeanor only. Under the new law, the first two times that police officers catch someone with drugs, they must issue the person a warning and provide them with contact information for rehabilitation resources. On the third occasion, the individual can be arrested and charged — but no charge is still viewed as the preferred outcome. An exception is made if the amount of illegal substances is very large, suggesting a connection to drug trafficking, in which case police can make an arrest without two prior warnings. The law also has a “sunset clause,” meaning the state legislature has two years to come up with a more permanent solution.
Washington state lawmakers who supported the state Supreme Court’s decision to scrap the old drug law argued that the state needed a more compassionate approach to dealing with drug addicts.
“They, in essence, ended the war on drugs,” said state Sen. Manka Dhingra, a Democrat from the city of Redmond, just east of Seattle.
The newly-loosened drug policy means that a 19-year-old in possession of a user amount of heroin could end up getting in less trouble than if the same person was caught in possession of alcohol or even tobacco. The maximum penalty for underage possession of alcohol in Washington is a year in jail and a fine of $5,000.
One of the biggest problems hamstringing police is that there is no statewide database to track how many warnings a drug suspect has already been given. A proposal to fix this involves the statewide system that is used for traffic tickets and vehicle collision reports. Within the last month, a new module for drug possession warnings was created in the Statewide Electronic Collision & Ticket Online Records (SECTOR) program, which is operated by the Washington State Patrol. When detaining a person for drug possession, an officer can run their name through SECTOR to determine how many warnings, if any, that person has already been given.
That’s how it works in theory anyway. In practice, logging drug warnings in the SECTOR database would have to be mandatory in order for it to work effectively, several heads of police in Washington told The Daily Wire. As of September 2, only 40 statewide drug warnings had been logged in the system, police said. The previous week, there were only a dozen drug referrals, and two of them were from one agency, the Whitman County Sheriff’s Office in southeastern Washington.
“The problem is it’s very haphazard and chaotic right now. It’s not an easy thing to just put in and track,” Whitman County Sheriff Brett Meyers said.
“How do we know it’s the third time if yesterday they’re arrested in Seattle, then they’re arrested in Yakima the next day, then they’re arrested in Walla Walla, and then in Whitman County?” he added. “Unless there’s some way to track this, there’s no way to know. And there’s no way to know if they got counseling.”
“It’s right on the edge of almost really an unenforceable law,” the sheriff said.
Local police departments and sheriff’s offices have attempted to address the lack of a coherent system by cobbling together their own local databases to track drug warnings.
In Grant County, police have been able to coordinate on drug warnings because several agencies in the county use the same computer-aided dispatch system, Moses Lake Police Chief Kevin Fuhr said. Outside the county though, they still have no idea who has and hasn’t been warned. The new drug law is essentially pointless for Grant County anyway because police in the county do not arrest people for misdemeanors, Fuhr said. Now that drug possession has been knocked down from a felony to a misdemeanor, the law simply creates paperwork for officers.
Meanwhile, drug use — and fatal drug overdoses — have skyrocketed in Washington and across the country since the pandemic began, while drug arrests have plummeted.
More than 93,000 people died from a drug overdose last year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. The pandemic exacerbated the nation’s drug problem, according to health officials, and 2020 ended as the deadliest year on record for drug overdoses.
In Washington, the availability of illegal substances increased, police said, once drug users figured out how lax the new law is. Public drug use is now rampant. Downtown Seattle remains a hotbed of open-air drug use and lawlessness, with residents describing how disturbing scenes of addicts shooting up in public have become a part of everyday life.
“We are in another drug epidemic,” Federal Way Police Chief Andy Hwang said at a town hall meeting last month.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich blasted the tragic effects of the new drug law as “assisted homicide.”
“These type of laws, all they’re doing is killing people cause we’re seeing more and more ODs,” Knezovich told The Daily Wire. “There’s nothing compassionate about allowing people to shoot poison into their body.”
Police are now aware of children as young as sixth-graders using marijuana at school, Knezovich said.
Proliferating drug use has exacerbated another problem in Washington: property crime, including vehicle prowls, home break-ins, and theft from businesses as drug users look to generate a little revenue to fund their addictions. In 2020, property crime, which makes up 73.7% of all reported crime in the state, increased by 13.8%, according to data from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC).
The new drug law also came on the heels of a slew of new police reforms in Washington state that force officers to allow suspects in many violent crimes to flee the scene. Meanwhile, violent crime is on the rise in Washington. Assaults on officers have increased nearly 7% since 2019, and murders have risen nearly 67% since 2016, the WASPC said.
Despite the intent of the new law as a more compassionate way to deal with drug users, in the vast majority of cases, addicts are not following through and contacting rehabilitation resources when police issue them a warning. Previously in Spokane County, the county’s drug court allowed drug users to avoid a felony on their record if they agreed to participate in the court’s rehab program.
“Our officers will tell you they’ve had people come up to them and thank them for arresting them for drugs because they were able to get dried out in jail,” Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl said. “Once they were able to get over the physical addiction, that’s when they were in a position to start dealing with the mental and emotional and psychological addiction.”