Who would've thunk it? One simple ruling on one simple case and the state's felony drug possession laws are effectively eliminated. For the addict, that's akin to saying help is on the way.
Well, at least akin to we're no longer standing in the way anyway. See for years -- nay, decades -- Washington State has classified Simple Possession to be a Felony. And that means for decades addicts and abusers were hit with egregious sentences and fines for possessing even the smallest amount of drugs. They were also tagged with a Felony Record. And if you've ever applied for a job anywhere, you know how detrimental a felony record can be. In fact, it's enough to send your application straight to the circular file. And if some lawmakers had their way, you'd go right along with it.
Not anymore though. Not anymore.
The Blake Decision
The case sounded simple enough. And at first it may have been. Then it didn't seem so simple at all. Its repercussions sure won't be. And neither will the lives of untold thousands of Washington State addicts now that it's been handed down. The law enforcement, correctional and judicial communities won't be the same either. Not even close. And that's not just a good thing -- it's a damn good thing.
We refer of course to The State of Washington vs Shannon Blake. Blake had been caught with a small bag of meth in the coin pocket of her jeans. Blake said she didn't do meth. Furthermore, the jeans were a gift from a friend, who bought them at a thrift shop. Neither had any idea the drugs were there.
The state said prove it. Blake said you prove it. But the state didn't have to prove anything. Washington's drug possession statute didn't require a person to knowingly possess drugs in order to be charged. So the state didn't have to prove the drugs were hers at all. Instead, she had to prove that they weren't. That denied Blake due process, argued her lawyer Richard Lechich of the Washington Appellate Project. Because she had to prove her innocence rather than the state having to prove her guilt.
The State Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Blake's favor. The law was unconstitutional. Furthermore, the court said that legislators knew for decades that the law contained no mention of intent but they had never changed it.
In other words, they should've known better.
"Attaching the harsh penalties of felony conviction, lengthy imprisonment, stigma, and the many collateral consequences that accompany every felony drug conviction to entirely innocent and passive conduct exceeds the legislature's powers," the court wrote in its decision.
State lawyers countered. Claiming the court's decision could retroactively affect anyone charged under that law. That would include thousands of inmates who were given enhanced sentences under it, parolees rearrested under it, as well as anyone who has had to pay fees and fines related to it.
Boo hoo. So they've got to do a little clean up. Those thousands had to try and live and work under all that egregious and unconstitutional duress.
Those thousands also had to pay. And pay. In some case, they were still paying. In fact, Washington State Association of Counties policy director Juliana Roe told Crosscut staff writer David Kroman that Washington and its counties may have collected anywhere from $24 million to $47 million in related fines over the last 20 years. Now much if not most of that money might just need to be paid back.
Felony Record Racket
Washington isn't the only state to run a drug possession felony record racket. Not even close. In fact, until California reclassified drug possession in 2014, every state considered it to be a felony. Since then another four states have opened their eyes and joined the club. But that's hardly a groundswell.
Why call it a felony? Because there's a whole lot of money in felonies, that's why. Between the enhanced court fees and sentencing, which of course means ever more money for jails, prisons and probation and parole, the revenue is astronomical. States definitely do not want to see an end to that heady stream.
But think of the money those states would save by reclassification. Jails and prison populations would shrink. So would probation and parole departments. And law enforcement could redirect their efforts toward addressing truly dangerous crimes. More importantly, states would save on the social services necessary to help incarcerates' families. Help that largely has to continue apace -- if not even increase -- once the newly-minted felon enters the underemployed workforce.
That's of course if they can enter the workforce. A felony record prevents hiring almost everywhere, including fast food restaurants and big box stores. And when the ex-con is lucky enough to land a job, he or she can expect minimum wage. Hardly enough to support a single adult, let alone an entire family, of any size.
Hidden Costs of Felony Drug Possession
Then there are the hidden costs families must endure, such as phone calls and emails (which are a whole 'nother privately-run racket), or perhaps a little extra on a loved one's commissary account. That's in addition to the court fines and jail fees, since most county jails now also charge inmates $10 per day.
Above all though is the depleted esteem caused by all of the above. In sky high debt yet barely employable, stigmatized and ostracized and marginalized. People end up paying for a felony record in ways far beyond money. And that's before they even have a chance to address their addiction issues.
For some inexplicable reason a Washington state legislator named Mark Mullet has introduced a replacement law to recriminalize drug possession. Yes, re-criminalize. We're not sure why this man would want to go backwards, especially in a state as progressive as Washington. But we think Mr. Mullet would be better off siding with his state's Supreme Court, as well as the consensus of legal and drug reform advocates. It would also be nice if he found a little empathy. Otherwise he might just have to go back to running his local Ben & Jerry's franchises.
Drug Possession Calls for Help Not Handcuffs
Recovery Boot Camp applauds the Washington State Supreme Court's Blake decision. We also applaud all the state lawmakers and advocates who are on the side of reclassifying simple drug possession. Defelonizing drug possession makes sense economically, socially and legislatively. It also makes good common sense. So what else does anyone need?
Furthermore, decades of egregious penalties have inordinately harmed already marginalized segments of our communities, be they people of color or sufferers of substance use disorders or both. It's time for that disparity to end. It's also time to allow law enforcement to enforce the most serious laws, and courts and corrections to address backlogs and overcrowding. More importantly, it's time we get help to those who most need it. And we stop punishing people for coming down with a disease.
If you need help, please seek help.