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Friends and Neighbors,

State lawmakers returned to the Capitol on May 16 for a one-day special session. There was one issue to address: our state drug laws, including possession, paraphernalia and treatment.

I am happy to report that bipartisan legislation, Senate Bill 5536, was passed and signed into law that day. Had the Legislature not acted, there would have been no state drug possession laws for hard drugs like fentanyl, heroin and meth after July 1. It would have been up to local governments to pass their own local ordinances.

I explained how we arrived at this situation in my last email update on May 1. It is disappointing that state lawmakers had to go into a special session to do something everyone knew needed to be addressed in the 105-day regular session. There is no excuse for this failure.

However, I do want to compliment the majority party for bringing Republicans to the table, listening to our policy priorities and ultimately adopting most of these solutions in the final bill that passed. This is how public policy should be developed, with Democrats and Republicans providing input that reflects the needs of their communities and constituents, and why the measure passed 83-13 in the House of Representatives and 43-6 in the Senate.

What does the bill do?

The final bill does several things. First, it increases criminal penalties for knowing possession from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor. In addition, the legislation criminalizes knowing use in a public space — also a gross misdemeanor. Some Republicans voted against this bill because they wanted the criminal penalties to be a felony, while some Democrats opposed it because they preferred no criminal penalties.

Second, the measure caps the maximum penalty for possession or public use at 180 days in jail for the first two convictions and 364 days for the third and subsequent convictions. It also provides greater prosecutorial control of subsequent diversions to hold people accountable.

Third, the bill creates a pre-trial diversion opportunity for individuals charged with drug possession offenses.

Fourth, the legislation allows cities, towns and counties to enact laws and ordinances “relating to the establishment or regulation of harm reduction services concerning drug paraphernalia.” This was a point of emphasis for Republicans who fought for — and ultimately successfully secured — more local control on drug paraphernalia policies.

Fifth, Republicans asked for more transparency in the siting of opioid treatment facilities so the public could have a say in these decisions. So, the measure requires the Department of Health to “provide public notice to all appropriate media outlets in the community in which the facility is proposed to be located that states the applicant is proposing a facility in the community.” More importantly, local communities are not restricted from holding mandatory public hearings upon these notices.

Finally, Republicans asked for some changes on policies related to recovery residences and health engagement hubs. These changes were made in the final bill. You can learn more about these policies in a letter House Republicans sent to Gov. Jay Inslee and Democratic legislative leaders in late April.

There are other important parts of the bill that you might find interesting. If you go to this link, you will find analysis from non-partisan staff in the House and Senate — including how various parts changed with different versions of the legislation.

The 20th District’s role in negotiations

I want to acknowledge my seatmates’ role in developing this legislation. Rep. Peter Abbarno and Sen. John Braun were lead negotiators and helped shape the final version of Senate Bill 5536.

In a statement, Peter said: “This measure strikes a balance between accountability and compassion. And while it may not have all the hallmarks of a comprehensive criminal justice or substance abuse bill, it provides sufficient flexibility to the criminal justice system, as well as substance abuse and mental health providers, to adequately address community concerns with crime and drug use.” You can read his full statement here.

John said in a joint statement with new House Republican Leader Drew Stokesbary: “This bill isn’t perfect, but it is a strong step in the right direction and addresses major shortcomings in the law that has proven to be such a failure these past two years. This policy will provide opportunities to those who seek treatment for drug addiction and hold accountable those who refuse it.” Their full statement can be found here.

They make important points and I agree with their sentiments. This policy is not perfect, nor is it a panacea. The Legislature’s work on this issue is not done and will continue in the future. Our state drug crisis will take time and resources to address.

My last thoughts on this issue are this: I want individuals who are struggling with drug addiction to get help and get off drugs. But I want to hold accountable those who refuse this offer of help. We need both options if we are going to save lives and protect communities. And that’s why I voted for Senate Bill 5536 in the special session.

Learn more

You can learn more at this webpage: How Republican resolve led to stronger state drug possession reforms

The months ahead

Just a reminder: While the 2023 legislative sessions are over, I am your state representative year-round. I am here to listen and help, if possible. Please don’t hesitate to email, call or send me a letter. If you email me, please give me a few days to respond.


Ed Orcutt

State Representative Ed Orcutt, 20th Legislative District
408 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 786-7990 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000