Federal Way re-criminalizes drug possession in wake of court decision

The possession of controlled substances in Federal Way has been re-criminalized with a new ordinance passed April 20 by the city council.

The Federal Way City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to create a local law prohibiting the knowing possession of controlled substances. The ordinance is in response to the Feb. 25 Washington Supreme Court decision to strike down a law that would have made simple drug possession illegal.

The Supreme Court declined a request on April 21 to reconsider the Feb. 25 decision, according to KING 5.

The prior 5-4 majority decision deemed the drug possession law as unconstitutional as prosecutors were not required to prove a defendant to be intentionally, or knowingly, in possession of drugs. The case is known as State v. Blake.

The state Legislature could rewrite the axed law to include proving intent with the inclusion of “knowingly,” Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell said.

The Federal Way ordinance makes it a gross misdemeanor to possess a controlled substance such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. At the municipal level, a gross misdemeanor is punishable by up to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

Federal Way City Council passed the ordinance after emergency first and second readings. The ordinance goes into effect May 20, which is 30 days from its approval.

Ferrell said he found the Legislature’s inaction to fix the law “disappointing and concerning” because for the past two months, all controlled substances have been legal, Ferrell said.

“That’s deeply troubling,” he said.

While waiting for the Legislature to act, several cities have decided to act on their own via city ordinances, he said.

On March 8, the City of Marysville was the first Washington city to re-criminalize drug possession, according to the Lynnwood Times. Later in March, the City of Bonney Lake and Grant County both passed similar ordinances in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Ferrell said he decided last month that if the Legislature did not act by April 20, the City of Federal Way would take action.

“We need to lead and that’s what we’re doing,” he said of Federal Way’s ordinance.

Operational and financial impacts to the Federal Way Police Department and municipal courts are minimal, as outlined in the city ordinance. An additional prosecutor may be necessary in the future, but is not being considered at this time.

Ferrell said he fears the legalization of controlled substances in any capacity would create a “wild west” type of free and legal market for federally illegal substances. He also said there does not appear to be a will in the Legislature to take the drug possession issue seriously.

Earlier in the legislative session, two bills were introduced regarding drug possession, yet neither Senate Bill 5468 nor Senate Bill 5475 have shown progress. The legislative session ends April 25.

“I’m not in favor of any legalization,” Ferrell said. “I don’t think that’s the right direction for our community, for our region.”

From his past experience as a King County prosecutor, Ferrell said legalization of personal amounts of drugs would be a gateway to widespread legalization, and thus would result in homicides and increased violence in communities.

“When you inject this level of ambiguity in the law, this level of permissiveness, you will see violence as a result of this,” he said.

Often the use of these drugs leads to theft, impaired driving, and some violent crimes in society, said City Attorney Ryan Call on Tuesday.

Drug possession charges in Federal Way are seemingly proportionate to Federal Way’s racial demographics, said Federal Way Police Chief Andy Hwang at the April 20 meeting.

In 2020, 96 people were arrested for drug crimes, and there were 90 total drug crime cases filed. Sixty-two cases were misdemeanors and 28 were felony cases. The single-digit discrepancy between cases and individuals comes from the fact that one case may have two arrestees, Hwang said. Drug crimes include possession, buying, selling and grow operations, among others.

Of the 96 individuals arrested for drug crimes, 11 individuals are Asian, 19 people are Black, four identify as Native American, 10 people are Hispanic, one person is Pacific islander, two people are of unknown race, and 49 people are white. Those arrested include 21 women and 75 men.

Hwang said when word of the ordinance gets around town, “it will have a positive impact in reducing the drug activity in our community.”

In the first quarter of 2021, Federal Way has recorded 12 drug offenses, based on data from the Federal Way Police Department. Drug crimes are becoming all too common and create unintended consequences beyond the user, Ferrell said.

The city’s ordinance also sends a message to the Legislature: “We don’t want this in our community,” Ferrell said. “Drugs destroy people, they destroy communities.”

Ferrell said the ordinance shows Federal Way stands up for community members, intolerance to lawlessness, and takes a firm stance that controlled substances are the wrong direction for this region.