While the people were barred from the state Capitol during the 2021 legislative session by the pandemic and a tall metal fence, majority Democrats made several policy decisions that have caused great harm in our state.
Republicans have been working ever since to undo some of those actions and prevent even more damage. This past week, we got closer to that goal on the top two public safety issues of this session.
On March 3, just past the halfway point of this year’s 105-day session, the 49-member state Senate approved Senate Bill 5536 on a 28-21 bipartisan vote. It represents a new response to the state Supreme Court’s ruling in State v. Blake, and would replace the disastrous 2021 law which essentially decriminalized the possession of fentanyl, methamphetamine, heroin and other hard drugs.
Five days later, on the final day for the Senate to act on Senate legislation not related to the budget, we saw a 26-23 bipartisan vote on Senate Bill 5352. It would begin to reform the extreme 2021 law that has essentially banned law enforcement officers from engaging in vehicular pursuits of suspected criminals.
Neither bill, especially the pursuit bill, is everything Republicans want. However, the majority Democrats in the House of Representatives would not let that chamber’s pursuit bill move forward. They also were not moving to end the failed social experiment on drug possession. If not for the Senate votes, both issues would be shelved for the year, and the harm to our people and communities would continue indefinitely.
Let’s take the Blake bill first. SB 5536 would make possession of hard drugs a gross misdemeanor. There would be no automatic jail time for the first offense, but the second and third offenses would bring minimum sentences of 21 and 45 days, respectively.
That said, this bill clearly leans toward treatment rather than incarceration because it offers the familiar carrot-or-stick choice. If a defendant successfully completes a pretrial diversion program, the drug possession charge is dropped and jail time is avoided. If someone convicted of drug possession agrees to an assessment and complies fully with treatment, that person will receive a suspended jail sentence.
The debate about the Blake bill was revealing. Some Democrats asserted people can’t be forced into treatment — the decision must be voluntary. The sentencing periods of 21 or 45 days are arbitrary, they said, and the bill criminalizes a disease. It was claimed the bill is racist and the threat of incarceration disproportionately affects people of color.
Those arguments, while emotional, don’t allow for the idea that people of color may want and certainly deserve equal opportunity to enter and complete treatment, and get their lives back. Nor do they acknowledge the pre-Blake drug courts worked without forcing anyone into treatment, because people recognized the benefits of participating and chose that path. Nor do they admit a few weeks in jail may be the only way for drug abusers to detox enough to recognize they need help and make an unimpaired decision to seek treatment.
It was notable that no Democrat stood up and defended the current law. Doing so would deny the shocking numbers of fatal overdoses in our state since it took effect, as well as the other consequences that are so easily seen on sidewalks and streets, on freeway rights-of-way, under bridges, in parks, and next to schools.
Most Republican senators, including me, supported the Blake bill. More would have if the bill had targeted the fentanyl epidemic by making fentanyl possession a felony, rather than a gross misdemeanor. A majority of the 29 Democratic senators said no to that, and to the bill itself, but enough Democrats joined us to get SB 5536 to the House. It was the right outcome.
As passed on March 8, the pursuit bill still would not allow police to engage in a vehicular chase of someone suspected of stealing a car or driving recklessly. That’s a deficit, and my “no” vote helps send that message to the House. But Republicans were not going to let the bill die, after all the effort we put into getting it to the Senate floor. Many on our side view SB 5352 as an improvement over the current police pursuit law, although incremental, and provided the votes that sent the bill to the House.
The next move belongs to the House majority. It has through April 12 to act on legislation sent over from the Senate. It can pass these critical public safety bills as they are, or improve the bills and return them to us. It also could make the bills worse and send them back. If the latter happens, the Republicans and Democrats who joined to keep these important proposals alive earlier this month need to stand firm. We must do better.
Sen. John Braun, of Centralia, serves the 20th Legislative District, which spans parts of four counties from Yelm to Vancouver. He became Senate Republican leader in 2020.