The Blake fix, finding a policy that works

This is not about politics, it’s about life and death. The drug epidemic has reached epic proportions, fueling not only a public health crisis, but a significant decline in public safety — leaving individuals, families and entire communities ravaged. Washington’s experiment with policies for hard drugs such as fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamines over the last two years has failed. Miserably. It’s time for the state to find an approach that works.

In 2021, the state Supreme Court’s State v. Blake decision effectively decriminalized hard drugs by ruling Washington’s felony drug possession law unconstitutional. The court’s ruling took place more than two years ago. At that time, the Legislature could have revised the statute and taken a more comprehensive approach to our state drug possession laws. Instead, they delayed the issue by putting a temporary measure in place, making it a misdemeanor with an expiration date set for a few weeks from now, on July 1.

That temporary “fix” has been a major contributor to our state’s soaring drug-use numbers and overdose deaths. According to the Washington State Department of Health’s Opioid and Drug Overdose Data dashboard, 2,264 overdose deaths took place in 2021 — nearly double the number just three years prior in 2018.

In the local Tri-Cities area, Pasco Chief of Police Ken Roske says the virtual legalization of hard drugs has left the justice system bereft of the tools needed to combat the growing crisis. Roske noted the following troubling scenario in a recent May 5 journal entry:

“Officers on patrol approach a woman they know well. She’s been lost in her addiction for over a decade, wandering the streets, with nothing but the clothes on her back and the drugs in her system. Her hygiene had long been neglected, and she often carried feces and drugs in her pockets…until she is ready to accept help, officers cannot provide the intervention she so desperately needs…she will continue to deteriorate – using any drug, committing petty crimes, and further victimizing herself and others.”

Since the Blake ruling — and the lack of a viable response from the Legislature — fewer addicts are getting the treatment they need, drug-related crime continues to rise, and we’re seeing more individuals suffering from drug addiction living on the streets.

Going into the 2023 session, one of lawmakers’ top priorities was fixing the drug-possession law. However, the majority party let the issue go until the final few hours of the session — running out of time for any fixes. And, truthfully, the bill they attempted to pass was not a fix.

Senate Bill 5536 sought to extend many of the same bad policies that continue to undermine the safety and well-being of our communities, allowing the drug crisis — including the growing number of overdoses — to explode. The measure would have legalized drug paraphernalia and equipment, allowing for a gross misdemeanor with no teeth if the case was deferred.

This bill’s lack of a credible diversion program and robust mental health support would have led to a revolving door, leaving plenty of room for people to game the system. Even worse, the bill gave local governments less control over this public safety problem than they have now. The bill failed to pass with a vote of 43-55.

Unfortunately, several lawmakers voted “no” for the wrong reasons. Some believe hard drugs should be legalized. That’s the wrong tactic. Ask Oregon. They legalized drug possession, making it a civil violation, subject to a ticket with a $100 fine. According to a recent Seattle Times article, out of the more than 4,266 civil tickets handed out in Oregon, fewer than 200 have called the available hotline for help and only 36 have sought out the recommended health assessment.

My niece died on the streets of Seattle from a fentanyl-laced heroin overdose. During the depths of her addiction, she had the word “freedom” artfully tattooed on her chest. The irony is that she was anything but free. She was in complete bondage to her addiction. Freedom from the bondage of drugs comes in three ways: consequences, accountability, and compassion. 

We need adequate criminal penalties and a support system that helps individuals get and stay sober. By providing adequate rehabilitation programs with mandatory completion requirements alongside criminal penalties, we provide accountability that can reduce the impacts of addiction while keeping our communities safe. Consequences plus accountability equal compassion — real compassion.

The governor has recently called a special session to pass a new “Blake fix.” Let’s hope a solution emerges that incorporates the principles outlined above. Tri-City residents are thoughtful, hard-working, and compassionate. I invite you to use your influence — by contacting the Legislature during this upcoming special session — and support a sensible drug law that works. 

State Representative Stephanie Barnard, 8th Legislative District
469 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 786-7986 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000