Marijuana banking bill set to get House vote next week, sponsor office says

Marijuana banking bill set to get House vote next week, sponsor office says

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A bill that would have officially decriminalized drugs in Washington state was gutted Thursday in the Senate, with lawmakers approving a drastically revised version that instead reinstates criminal penalties following a Supreme Court ruling. State that revoked the ban.

The action sets up a possible showdown with more progressive Democrats in the House of Representatives who have said they will not vote for a law that amounts to a criminal war on drugs.

Washington has not had a drug possession law since a divided state Supreme Court abruptly overturned it in February, after ruling that a small portion of the decades-old law was unconstitutional. Lawmakers have since scrambled to process the decision – which ended statewide drug arrests and prosecutions and freed dozens of people in jail for drug possession – before the legislative session ended on April 25. .

In the Senate on Thursday night, a bill that would have originally left drug possession decriminalized was amended to make possession a serious offense, a felony punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of 5,000. $ – a change that led its main sponsor to vote against the measure.

Prior to the court ruling, drug possession was classified as a felony.

Senators passed the amended version of the bill, SB 5476, by 28–20–1 votes. He then heads to the House, where he’s scheduled for a first supply committee hearing on Monday, with possible committee action scheduled for Wednesday, April 21.

Watch Senators discuss drug sanctions legislation, at around 1:01:33 in the video below:

As amended, the bill passed by the Senate represents moderate reform of Washington’s now invalidated possession law. It requires prosecutors to divert people on first- and second-time possession charges to assessment and treatment programs, and allows for the possibility of additional diversions with prosecutor’s approval.

“I think this striking amendment will help us move things forward as we continue to negotiate over the past 10 days with the organization opposite for a response that will provide services, treatment and support. helps people struggling with substance use disorders, ”Senator Jamie Pedersen (D), who introduced the amendment, said on the Senate floor.

The bill in its original form represented a more significant change from the war on drugs. It would have imposed no penalties for possession of small amounts of “personal use” drugs, but instead referred people to services for assessment and treatment of substance use disorders.

Some senators who initially supported SB 5476 eventually changed their votes after the passage of the misdemeanor amendment. The bill’s original sponsor, Senator Manka Dhingra (D), said she could no longer support the proposal.

“The way we’re doing it, I’m glad there are possibilities for diversion, but it doesn’t have to go through the criminal justice system,” Dhingra said during the indoor debate. “I understand this is my bill, I understand my name is on it, but I will vote no on it today.”

Many senators who weighed in on the bill on Thursday said it was important for the legislature to pass something before the end of the session, given the huge impact of the state Supreme Court’s ruling. of February, State v. Blake. In a statement released after the vote at the hearing, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig (D) said failure to pass state drug possession law “means a patchwork of local ordinances that will confuse Washingtonians and not deliver equal justice across the state. “

Generally speaking, state drug laws are meant to outstrip those of cities and counties in Washington. With the disappearance of the state’s law against possession, localities could establish their own laws and penalties, and some have already started to do so.

“The bill we passed today is not the last word on the subject,” Billig said in a statement. “It is a compromise that advances this important legislation so that we can do our duty as representatives of the people of our entire state.”

Representatives in the House, however, have indicated greater openness to letting drug possession decriminalized this session. Lawmakers in favor of broader drug reform on Thursday introduced a new bill, HB 1578, which would expand treatment and recovery services and reclassify low-level possession as a civil, punishable offense. a fine of up to $ 125 and no possibility of imprisonment.

Marijuana Moment is already following more than 1,000 cannabis, psychedelics, and drug bills in state legislatures and in Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $ 25 / month have access to our interactive maps, charts and audience calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our Marijuana Bill Tracker and become a Patreon supporter to access it.

Of all the measures currently in play in this session, the new bill is the one that most closely resembles neighboring Oregon’s drug decriminalization measure passed by voters in November. But its path is uncertain: HB 1578 is expected to pass both houses of the legislature in less than two weeks.

Likewise, it is still unclear how the House will receive the bill passed by the Senate, SB 5476, in its new form. More progressive members of the Democratic caucus have said they will not vote for a law that reimposes criminal penalties for simple possession, but it is unclear whether they will be able to muster enough support to pass legislation. decriminalization.

If House lawmakers were to amend the Senate bill before passing it, the bill would have to go to a conference committee, where members of both chambers would settle the differences between the two versions of the bills. law.

Earlier this year, before the Supreme Court ruling, a House committee passed a separate bill, HB 1499, which would have ended criminal penalties for quantities of drugs for personal use and led people to a assessment and treatment. It would also have significantly expanded the state’s outreach and recovery programs for people with drug use disorders. This measure was not pursued after missing a legislative deadline last month.

HB 1499, for its part, is the result of an effort to get a drug decriminalization initiative on Washington’s ballot last year. Supporters have turned to the legislature after taking a break from their signature campaign after COVID-19 began in the Seattle area early last year.

Supporters of the reform noted that the state’s criminal enforcement of drug possession laws has a strong bias against people of color, particularly the state’s black, brown, and indigenous communities.

In her comments to the Senate, Dhingra echoed this point, arguing that the Blake ruling offers lawmakers a chance to finally begin to tackle these racial disparities.

“I will say that the Supreme Court has provided us with an opportunity,” she said, “an opportunity to really reflect on what we as a state and as a nation have done regarding the war against drugs, and really think about it. critical of the impact this has had very, very specifically on brown and black families. “

“The racial impact of our drug laws cannot be underestimated,” Dhingra continued. “When you look at mass incarceration, when you look at families with a single mother raising children, when you look at parents who cannot find employment because of their criminal history, cannot find housing. , can’t seek recovery, it comes down to how we enforce our drug laws. “

Representative Roger Goodman (R), the main sponsor of the House’s new measure HB 1578, which would make possession a civil offense, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday evening. In an interview with Marijuana Moment last month, however, he called Blake’s decision “both a blessing and a curse.”

“It’s an opportunity for us to find a more effective approach that does less harm,” he said, “but we don’t have the opportunity to be deliberate and inclusive in conversations with stakeholders. , so it’s not as well thought out. a proposal because it would be otherwise. It must be an interim measure. “

Just five years ago, few state legislatures would have dreamed of letting drugs remain decriminalized after a court ruling like Blake. Now attitudes are starting to change.

“There’s this phenomenon called discontinuous change,” Goodman told Marijuana Moment, “where nothing happens and nothing happens and nothing happens and then the Berlin Wall collapses. We come to that place in drug policy where it is a tipping point. “

Voters in Oregon ended the ban on low-level drug possession in the ballot in last November’s election, which has contributed to the national conversation.

In Maine and Vermont, lawmakers also recently unveiled legislation last month to decriminalize small amounts of illicit drugs. Last month, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on legislation that would end criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of drugs and replace them with a $ 100 fine.

In New Jersey, meanwhile, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said last month he was “open-minded” about decriminalizing all drugs.

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