Kitsap sheriff: Drug laws also need to be fixed

Lawmakers in Olympia need to put teeth in the state’s drug possession law yet still help drug abusers get treatment, Kitsap County Sheriff John Gese said.

As it stands now, when an officer encounters someone possessing illegal drugs for personal use – anything from meth to cocaine to heroin – for the first two contacts the cop can only suggest that the person get drug treatment. After the third contact, the officer can cite the person for a misdemeanor.

“What we found over the last year is the law has just not been effective,” Gese said. “It’s not helping people go into treatment, and it’s not creating an environment in our communities that people find acceptable. There has been a lot of open drug use.”

Fentanyl is a particularly dangerous drug.

“Right now, addiction is a significant issue in our community. We are seeing fentanyl deaths at a rate we haven’t seen before,” Gese said.

The drug possession law was enacted as a temporary fix after the state Supreme Court in February 2021 ruled the previous law, which had been in effect for decades, was unconstitutional. The decision rocked the criminal justice system causing hundreds of past drug convictions to be tossed out.

In State of Washington v. Blake, the court ruled the law allowed someone who unknowingly possessed drugs to be guilty of a criminal offense. The case centered on a woman who was wearing a friend’s pair of jeans that, unaware to her, had drugs in a pocket. The woman was found guilty of drug possession.

At the time, Washington was the only state that did not require a person to knowingly possess drugs to be found guilty, the court wrote. The latest version of the law requires that a person “knowingly” have contraband.

Following the decision, Kitsap deputies arrests for drug possession plummeted by more than 76%. In the six months prior to the decision, deputies made 26 arrests, compared to six in the six-month period after the ruling, sheriff’s statistics show.

The current drug possession law, passed in response to the Blake decision, is set to expire July 1. If lawmakers do not pass a new rule then beginning in July there would be no state law prohibiting possession of personal amounts of hard drugs.

“We can’t let that happen. We should not decriminalize drugs,” Gese said. “I think we need to have a very balanced approach where there is a law – whether it be a gross misdemeanor or felony – that tells people if they are dealing with drugs that they are going to get contacted” by police.

“I do believe [making drug possession] a criminal offense does give us the ability to stop some folks and hopefully get them into treatment. I don’t believe you should get a long prison sentence for being a drug addict,” the sheriff said.

Gese’s dissatisfaction with the law is aligned with the state Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

Association executive director Steven Strachen said: “Our drug laws tolerated personal drug possession and made harmful and dangerous drugs essentially legal to possess across the state. The Blake decision has made it far easier for those who sell drugs to prey on victims and has brought chaos to public spaces.”

As for any new laws, Gese said: “It’s too early for me to be optimistic that we are going to have a solution that conforms to what I hope.” However, he added, “There is some good discussion happening about bipartisan bills.”