Kent city leaders aren’t waiting around any longer on the state Legislature when it comes to adopting drug possession laws.
The City Council voted 6-0 on Tuesday, May 2 to prohibit the unlawful possession of drugs and create a new alternative two-year deferred prosecution program to help connect individuals charged with such crimes into treatment for their drug addiction.
Legislators failed in their recently completed session in Olympia to agree on a new drug possession law. On July 1, 2023 drug possession would become legal. Gov. Jay Inslee on May 2 called for a special session starting May 16 for the Legislature to reach an agreement on drug possession laws.
“Heroin, fentanyl, methamphetamine and other drugs are ravaging cities across the region and the illicit drug market continues to drive crime to fund addiction,” Kent Mayor Dana Ralph said in a May 3 statement. “With no statewide legislation in place, the impact on our community will only continue to grow.
“We can no longer wait for the Legislature. During yesterday’s (May 2) Kent City Council meeting, I proposed a new ordinance prohibiting the unlawful possession of drugs in Kent. I am proud to say our council unanimously approved the ordinance.”
Ralph announced April 24, the day after the Legislature’s final day, that she would propose a drug possession measure to the council on May 2.
The council agreed with Ralph’s proposal, which will become law on July 1, 2023.
“There’s a difference in helping and enabling,” Councilmember Brenda Fincher said prior to the vote. “This is a step in helping. If you do nothing, we just enable people on a path that’s not going to help them.”
After the state Supreme Court’s ruling in 2021, known as the Blake decision, erased a law making simple drug possession a felony, legislators last year agreed to make possession a misdemeanor but require police officers refer people to treatment before arresting them. They set June 30, 2023 as the date for those changes to expire.
With no state measure passed this year, more cities and counties are expected to take their own steps, such as what Kent just did.
“I want to thank our council members for joining me in recognizing that we cannot stand idly by while individuals die of overdose or watch drug-related property and violent crimes continue to impact our neighborhoods and businesses,” Ralph said.
The new ordinance makes possession of controlled substances, other than cannabis, a gross misdemeanor, and creates an alternative two-year deferred prosecution program for individuals charged with these crimes. A gross misdemeanor can lead to a sentence of up to 364 days in a jail and/or a fine of up to $5,000.
“They’ll be given the choice to participate in treatment and have their charges dismissed, or convictions vacated after successful completion of treatment,” said Ralph, who hopes the potential for a longer jail sentence leads to more people charged with drug possession crimes to seek treatment.
Councilmember Zandria Michaud asked City Attorney Tammy White, who presented the proposal to the council, to give an example of how the new law would work if an officer arrests someone for drug possession.
White said an officer who observed someone using drugs in public and having possession of drugs, could arrest that person and book them into the city jail. If they remain in jail depends if they have any warrants. They could be released on bail but have to come back to court before a Kent municipal judge to face charges. If they are released and don’t come back, a judge can issue a bench warrant for their arrest.
“Our main goal is to get them before a judge,” White said. “Once they are in court, they will have access to an attorney who will know the options available and we can connect them with (treatment) services and they will get out of custody.”
Michaud than asked how someone’s progress through drug treatment will be tracked.
White said the probation department meets with people on a monthly basis and that the court has a research coordinator whose job is to get individuals connected with treatment. If a person is not following a treatment program, they can be brought back before a judge.
White said the city has service providers and will add more to make sure people have access to treatment.
“If they go into a two-year deferred program (and complete it), at the end the charge will be dismissed and not on their record,” White said.
Ralph said the measure could help legislators reach a solution during their special session.
“It is my hope that when the Legislature convenes in a special session that they use this ordinance as a template for state-wide action,” Ralph said. “It is comprehensive, treatment forward, and can be practically applied in communities across the state.”
Councilmember Toni Troutner said it could take a while before residents see a difference.
“This will not happen overnight,” Troutner said. “We ask the community to be patient as the program gets implemented and we work through some of the kinks.”
And what happens to the city law if the Legislature adopts a new law?
“If the state does something, I’ll be back and we will figure out what we’ll do next,” White said.