Kent Mayor Dana Ralph

Kent Mayor Dana Ralph

Kent mayor proposes City Council adopt tougher drug possession law

Dana Ralph reacts to lack of action by state Legislature in Olympia

Kent Mayor Dana Ralph will propose a new public safety ordinance to the City Council after the state Legislature failed to adopt any changes to the drug possession law.

Ralph lobbied legislators all session for tougher drug possession laws. Just last week, Ralph was among 28 mayors from across the state who signed a letter sent to the legislators in Olympia to support the Senate version of a proposed new drug possession and treatment law rather than changes made by the House.

But on the final day Sunday, April 23, of the 2023 session, the House and Senate couldn’t agree on a new measure.

”As your mayor, it is my paramount responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of the Kent community,” Ralph said in a statement. “Today (April 24) I am taking the action I have determined necessary to meet my continuing obligation to all of you.”

The Senate version had a harsher penalty, favored by Ralph, than what the House passed April 12. The Senate bill would have made drug possession a gross misdemeanor, with a maximum punishment of up to 364 days in county jail, a $5,000 fine, or both. The House bill preferred making drug possession a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail, a $1,000 fine or both.

Ralph’s proposal to the council calls for the gross misdemeanor penalty in an effort to encourage those arrested to seek treatment.

“I am announcing my intent to ask our Council for consideration of a new ordinance that will make the possession of controlled substances, other than cannabis, a gross misdemeanor,” Ralph said. “The intent of the law will be to encourage those arrested to get into treatment through our municipal court system. If a charged individual actively engages in treatment, they will have the opportunity for the offense to be removed from their record and they will not serve jail time.

“Incarceration will only be utilized when a person chooses to not participate in a treatment program. We will leverage our court, which is designed to provide the incentives needed, to encourage those suffering from addiction to get into treatment and support a life of sobriety.”

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.

With no state measure passed this year, more cities and counties are expected to take their own steps, such as Ralph’s proposal.

“Substance abuse is taking an increasing toll on the health and safety of our region,” Ralph said. “The state Legislature was unable to come to agreement on laws to protect our community from the impacts of controlled substance abuse and help those suffering from addiction find a path to treatment.”

Ralph said the city’s proposal will lay out a path forward to help Kent provide compassionate care for those suffering from addiction while holding those unwilling to seek treatment accountable.

“During the session, the City of Kent worked tirelessly advocating for proposed legislation intended to address the possession and use of illegal drugs in Washington,” Ralph said. “The city thanks our legislative delegation for its work in attempting to establish reasonable regulations of controlled substances. Unfortunately, the legislative session ended without the passage of a practical solution and as a result, under state law, starting July 1, there will be no meaningful way to prohibit the unlawful possession or use of dangerous drugs including among others heroin, fentanyl, and methamphetamine.”

Ralph said the impacts are many.

“Substance use disorder is ravaging this region, and the number of controlled substance-related deaths continues to rapidly increase,” she said. “The lack of adequate laws surrounding controlled substances creates an opportunity for those who produce, import, and sell deadly drugs to prey on those suffering from addiction. The illicit drug market drives violent crime throughout the region. Property crimes, which are committed to fund addiction, have impacted our residents and business community.”

Ralph said balance is needed between treatment and penalties.

“I recognize that substance use disorder is a medical issue and treatment services are necessary,” she said. “However, without proper support and encouragement, a person with a substance use disorder cannot be expected to make the decision to stop using. The power of addiction continues to control individuals and there is no incentive to end the cycle of use.

“As the mayor of Kent, it is my responsibility to take action to promote the health, safety, and welfare in our community. I will not stand by and watch people suffer any longer. It is not acceptable to stand by while individuals die of overdose, or to watch drug-related property and violent crimes negatively impact our neighborhoods and businesses.”

In September 2022, the city of Kent became the first Washington city to prohibit the public use of controlled substances.

Ralph said she will ask the council to consider the use of funds recovered as a result of the city’s opioid litigation to help fund substance abuse evaluations and treatment.

“My hope is that with these tools in hand, we will help those suffering from substance abuse disorder while at the same time improving the safety and health of our community,” Ralph said.

Ralph plans to present her proposal to the council on Tuesday, May 2.

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