Washington on Verge of Fentanyl Decriminalization as Democratic Legislature Fails To Pass Law

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May 4, 2023

Washington State’s Democratic governor Jay Inslee this week called a special session of the state legislature in a last-ditch effort to pass a bill to prevent fentanyl from being automatically decriminalized, as deaths continue to soar across the country from the drug. 

"Cities and counties are eager to see a statewide policy that balances accountability and treatment, and I believe we can produce a bipartisan bill that does just that," Inslee said in a Tuesday statement. Inslee's move to reconvene the Democratic-controlled legislature comes after it adjourned last week without passing a bill addressing penalties for drug possession, ahead of the July 1 expiration of the state's current drug possession law. If lawmakers don't pass a new bill by that date, hard drugs including fentanyl will automatically be decriminalized in the state.

Washington faces the predicament because the state Supreme Court in 2021 struck down Washington's law making drug possession a felony for being too harsh. At the time, the legislature passed a temporary replacement to the law that made drug possession a misdemeanor, but it's set to expire this summer.

Last month, on the last day of the regular legislative session, the State House voted by a 55-43 margin against a bill to replace the temporary criminal code on drug possession. Both Democrats and Republicans voted against the bill. Democratic critics of the bill complained that it punishes drug users who need treatment, and Republican critics said it preempts local governments' ability to regulate drug use.

If the legislature fails to reach an agreement on a bill, Washington will become the second state in the country, after Oregon, to decriminalize hard drugs.

The push to prevent decriminalization comes as fentanyl deaths remain a growing problem across the nation. Between 2016 and 2021, deaths that involved fentanyl use rose from 6 per 100,000 people to 22 per 100,000, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Nearly 70,000 people died of drug overdoses involving fentanyl in 2021 in America. Two-thirds of overdose deaths in 2021 involved fentanyl.