STATEMENT: To save lives, Senate should stand its ground on reform of failed drug-possession law, says Republican leader

OLYMPIA… The state Senate voted more than five weeks ago to make possession of hard drugs a gross misdemeanor, and improve on the Legislature’s disastrous response to the state Supreme Court’s 2021 Blake decision. The state House of Representatives just passed a version of Senate Bill 5536 that would lower the charge for possession to a misdemeanor, the same as in the state law that has been in effect since 2021.

Senate Republican Leader John Braun says the Senate’s approach would save lives and needs to become law this year. Braun, who serves the 20th Legislative District, offered this statement as the 2023 legislative session nears its final phase, when the two chambers work to settle differences between bills each has passed:

“We saw this same thing two years ago – a bipartisan majority in the Senate votes to make possession of fentanyl and other hard drugs a gross misdemeanor, and the House Democrats say no, it should only be a misdemeanor. In 2021, the Senate Democrats made a huge mistake by going along with the House. It would be an even bigger mistake if that happens again. The Senate needs to stand its ground.

“There is more than enough empirical evidence that the current law’s threat of a misdemeanor charge isn’t enough to get people into treatment. Stepping the charge up to a gross misdemeanor is not about more incarceration, it’s about more leverage to get people with substance-use disorders onto a path that could save their lives. Too many have ended up in the morgue already. It’s hard to understand how, with drug overdoses becoming the leading cause of death in our state for people younger than 60, the House Democrats can possibly cling to their extreme position as being right for the communities they serve.

“Four of the Democratic senators who didn’t support a gross misdemeanor in 2021 helped pass SB 5536 on March 3. Clearly, something changed their minds. There are some on the Republican side who, understandably, may still view the Senate’s version as not doing enough to combat the fentanyl epidemic. Either way, the House has gotten it wrong – again. The Senate needs to get it right this time, by holding firm behind the better policy we passed.”