Washington’s drug laws need revision for community’s sake | Renton police chief

By Chief Jon Schuldt

Renton Police Department

A police department’s purpose is to ensure the safety and health of our community. Seems like an easy enough objective, but the reality is that we are struggling, not as a police department, but as a community to reach this goal. Our opposition: current legislation and the negative effect it has had on our ability to disrupt the cycle of drug addiction.

To provide background, in February 2021, Washington’s existing felony drug possession statute was ruled unconstitutional by a Washington State Supreme Court Decision called State v. Blake — commonly referred to as the “Blake Decision.” In response, Senate Bill 5476 was created and became effective on July 1, 2021. This bill established specific criteria for officers to be able to charge a person in possession of drugs for personal use. This was an extensive modification of the existing statute.

SB 5476 reduced drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor crime and added a requirement that an officer must have proof that the person was knowingly in possession of drugs. Under this law, officers are also required to offer a referral to treatment if they come across a person in possession of drugs. In fact, it takes being referred to treatment twice. If they are found to be knowingly in possession a third time, that person can be cited or booked in jail (and there is no statewide system in place to track these referrals between jurisdictions). The intent of this bill, however compassionate, from a practical standpoint has legalized narcotic possession due to the complexities of enforcement.

What we see in the day-to-day application of this practice is that drug users have become emboldened as they experience first-hand contacts with officers and understand there are only very minimal actions officers can take. The intention of the law is not being met through the current process. In fact, I believe it has worsened the narcotic crisis in our state. It is a social experiment that has failed those suffering from substance use disorder. The expectation that someone suffering in the thralls of addiction will make the rational choice to seek treatment is illogical.

In line with the provisions of the law, we implemented emphasis patrols providing outreach to those experiencing homelessness and drug addiction in the downtown core. Out of 350 people contacted by officers, fewer than 10 agreed to a referral, and it is unknown how many went on to meet with a provider.

To show the prevalence of what law enforcement is facing, last month in a single seizure, our detectives recovered 1.3 pounds of heroin, 13.5 pounds of methamphetamine, 41 pounds of cocaine, 31,600 fentanyl pills, 85 grams of fentanyl powder and 4 guns.

Just last week, our patrol officers located 293 grams of methamphetamine, 18 grams of cocaine, 139 grams of heroin, 25 grams of fentanyl powder, 891 fentanyl pills, 6.17 grams of amphetamine and $360,000 from a single traffic stop. We continue to combat the dealers, being more creative in our resolve, but as long as the demand goes unchecked, we will always be fighting an uphill battle. There is no doubt that the work of the officers in these cases saved the lives of community members.

Never lost in this conversation should be the impact that this health crisis is having on the community at large — the infringements of rights, the decreasing quality of life and expense that is burdened by way of associated crimes by those suspects suffering addiction. This unintended consequence has put an unfair weight the community has had to shoulder due to current restrictions in the law.

As the 2023 Legislature is in session, it is vital that our community be aware as new laws are created, and others are amended. We share the state goal to direct people to treatment over incarceration; however, there is a need to retool and strengthen the current law to be more effective in the intervention of drug offenses, and getting support, treatment, and services for those who need them.

Removing the voluntary nature of referrals and enabling law enforcement to intervene and take enforcement action will help restore accountability to the system and the much-needed assistance that our community members that are suffering from addiction deserve.

Currently being debated in the House of Representative is Senate Bill 5536; this bill restores those badly needed measures to ensure those suffering from substance use disorders have access to the resources they so badly need. Police are currently dealing with the symptoms. We need the tools to deal with the root cause. I believe that SB 5536 is the balanced, thoughtful, and effective legislation that will bring about positive change.

The Renton Police Department is committed to educating our community members. We encourage the community to seek information and engage your elected representatives with your questions, comments, or concerns. Now more than ever, the decisions they make and the laws they pass will have significant impact for all of us.