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Woman whose case changed Washington drug law passes away

A blond woman smiles at the camera.
Courtesy of Kim Balcom
Shannon Bowman, whose case resulted in the state Supreme Court's 2021 Blake decision, changing state law regarding drug possession.

A woman whose court case caused Washington state to rewrite its drug laws has passed away. Shannon Bowman died in August; McClatchy first reported on her death last week.

Bowman might be known statewide as the person at the center of the landmark "Blake decision," which threw out Washington's felony drug law and forced the state legislature to pass a measure lessening the criminal penalty this summer.

But in Kettle Falls, in Northeast Washington, Bowman was known as a truck driver, log hauler, DIY-er, and a caring friend who would come fix your car or get you at 4 a.m. when you were stuck on Sherman Pass.

"And she would go get them," her mom, Kim Balcom, said. "And she would take her tools and her flashlight and see what she could do while she was there."

After a struggle with drugs, Balcom said her daughter was committed to her sobriety, and she was tough.

"She had a real serious motorcycle accident, had skull fractures, had broke her collarbone in two places," Balcom said. "And they had to just do surgery to reset it. She wouldn't even take the pain pills then."

In 2016, when she was still going by her married name, Shannon Blake, she was staying at the home of a friend. Spokane Police came with a search warrant for stolen vehicles.

"She was never charged and related to that," said Richard Lechich, Bowman's lawyer. "But when she was booked into the jail, they search you, and in the dime pocket of her jeans was a small amount of methamphetamine."

She fought the felony possession charge, saying a friend had given her the jeans two days beforehand.

In 2021, the state Supreme Court sided with her. The Blake decision voided Washington’s felony drug law, and forced the legislature to revisit it, passing a measure that included millions in funding for treatment.

Because of Bowman's decision to fight the case, anyone convicted for possession of small amounts of drugs under the old state law can get that charge removed — potentially affecting tens of thousands of people convicted in the last 50 years since the law originally passed. Lechich said his clients are still seeing the Blake decision’s impacts in shortened sentences.

Professor Pilar Margarita Hernández Escontrías teaches first year law students about the Blake decision at Seattle University law school.

"Miss Bowman — her story, these personal pieces of her, maybe her desire to fight," Escontrías said, prompted the highest court in Washington to tell lawmakers: "No, you've got to actually show the bad intent here. You can't just go after people who are not realizing that they're breaking a law."

Balcom said her daughter was surprised by the decision and its impacts.

"I think there's pros and cons to it," Balcom said. "People like her that – honestly, that was not something that was hers – they actually might get the chance to have a redo."

That redo allowed Bowman to continue raising her daughter, who is now 14.

The cause of Bowman's death has yet to be determined, pending a report from the Stevens County Coroner.

Scott Greenstone is a former KNKX reporter. His reporting focused on under-covered communities, and spotlighting the powerful people making decisions that affect all of us throughout Western Washington.