Washington state might decriminalize possession of fentanyl and other drugs during a lawmaker delay, which would also slow investments in public health.

Last month, Washington state lawmakers voted down a bill that would have kept drug possession illegal and boost addiction services available to the public. Tying the two together made it unpopular with both sides of the aisle. But a temporary law making low-level possession a crime expires in July, so inaction will decriminalize drugs no matter what either side wants. Lawmakers adjourned after the vote, so Gov. Jay Inslee is calling a special session, forcing them back to the table to resolve the problem.

“Cities and counties are eager to see a statewide policy that balances accountability and treatment, and I believe we can produce a bipartisan bill that does just that,” Inslee said.

Public drug use is soaring in cities, especially Seattle, Bremerton, and Tacoma.

“Our hands-off approach to people using illegal drugs in public has resulted in rampant street crime and a death toll rivaling that of COVID-19 in Seattle,” Nelson said in a statement. “Complacency is no longer an option.”

The new law would have made intentional possession a gross misdemeanor instead of a minor misdemeanor, and would have allowed police to arrest on a first offense instead of waiting until a difficult-to-track third offense. It also would have provided funding for crisis drug centers and protection for public health workers trying to make drug use safer, such as needle exchanges.

Without those provisions of the bill being passed, the state’s approach to drugs amounts to “an entire diversion system with nothing to divert people to,” said Caleb Banta-Green, a research professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

“We need $50 million to $100 million statewide and a health engagement hub in each county, and we could cut deaths in half in a year,” he said. “We know what to do.”

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