Kent, Auburn, Renton mayors sign letter to legislators about drug laws

Three among 28 mayors across the state opposing House changes to Senate bill on drug possession laws

Mayors from Kent, Auburn and Renton are among the 28 mayors from across the state who signed a letter sent to the state legislators in Olympia to support the Senate version of a proposed new drug possession and treatment law rather than changes made by the House.

“During this legislative session, I have asked the Legislature, repeatedly, to address drug use laws,” Kent Mayor Dana Ralph said in an April 19 statement. “The current version of the bill takes us backwards. It will make it harder for us and other cities to address public drug use. It will make it harder for us to get people into treatment.

“Unless this bill is fixed, it would be better for the Legislature to do nothing. The attached letter, signed by mayors from across the state, lays out our ask to address drug abuse, not take away cities ability to do so.”

Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus and Renton Mayor Armando Pavone also signed the letter.

The rest of the mayors are from Spokane, Spokane Valley, Cheney, Liberty Lake, Medical Lake, Millwood, Colville, Chewelah, Colfax, Pasco, Richland, Everett, Marysville, Lake Stevens, Sultan, Lakewood, Puyallup, Gig Harbor, Orting, Milton, Ruston, Sumner, Bonney Lake, Kennewick and Yakima.

“As local governments, public safety is our number one job, and we are asking for help from the state Legislature to restore tough boundaries, maintain local control and protect our communities,” the letter begins. “We, the undersigned mayors, have become increasingly concerned with the changes made by the House to Senate Bill 5536. The changes represent a step back in accountability and make it more difficult for local communities to keep our communities safe.”

The Senate version had a harsher penalty than what the House passed April 12. The two chambers have until the scheduled adjournment on April 23 to agree on an amended bill.

After the state Supreme Court’s ruling in 2021, known as the Blake decision, erased a law making simple drug possession a felony, lawmakers 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.

Both chambers have spent this session on new laws.

A month ago, the Senate, on a bipartisan 28-21 vote, approved a version making drug possession a gross misdemeanor, and building out the state’s drug treatment programs and services, according to the Everett Herald. One could avoid prosecution by completing a pretrial diversion program, and get a conviction for simple drug possession vacated by completing treatment.

House Democrats made changes, some significant, according to the Herald. They made it a misdemeanor to possess and use drugs in a public place. Cops no longer have to refer someone rather than arrest them. But those arrested solely for possession must be given a shot at a pretrial diversion.

“We are supportive of the Senate’s proposal to make possession of controlled substances punishable as a gross misdemeanor and for the additional statutory guidance to the judiciary on appropriate sentencing levels,” according to the mayors’ letter. “However, there are specific issues with the House-approved version of SB 5536 that are gravely concerning to local cities who are accountable for and must deal with the local impacts associated with drug use.”

The mayors said the House version “lacks adequate accountability to compel an individual to seek and complete the services they need.” The mayors want tougher guardrails so that individuals enter and complete the treatment.

The mayors also oppose any restrictions of the ability of local jurisdictions to regulate the public use of drugs.

“The public use of drugs presents an immediate and prolonged health and safety risk to our local public from the discarded paraphernalia, effects of the drug on the user and potential contact with law-abiding people,” according to the letter.

The mayors summarized their stance near the end of the letter.

“Our communities are tired of the rampant drug use and the resulting violence, vandalism and crimes that typically accompany substance abuse. We hear about it every single day. Decriminalizing drugs and taking away necessary accountability has sent the wrong message to the small percentage of criminal element that is negatively impacting the overwhelming majority of law-abiding individuals in our community.”

Letter sent to legislators from 28 mayors across the state.

Letter sent to legislators from 28 mayors across the state.