Lawmakers aim to have Washington join Oregon in decriminalizing drug possession

Feb 8, 2021, 3:12 PM
Drug possession...
(Associated Press, file photo)
(Associated Press, file photo)

A new bill proposed in the Washington Legislature seeks to decriminalize personal drug possession, similar to a first-of-its-kind measure that took effect in Oregon last week.

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HB 1499, sponsored by state Reps. Lauren Davis and Kirsten Harris, would seek to direct drug offenders toward treatment and recovery services “in lieu of criminal penalties” like jail time and fines.

“Substance use disorder is among the only health conditions for which a person can be arrested for displaying symptoms,” the bill reads. “People use drugs to escape the painful reality of their lives and circumstances. Causing more hurt through the trauma of incarceration will not produce a willingness to change, only more pain to numb.”

The bill’s proponents specifically cite data gathered by syringe exchange programs, which found that “the vast majority of people who are using drugs want to reduce or stop their use.”

That includes a survey conducted by UW’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute (ADAI).

“We’ve (surveyed) over a 1,000 people in 2015 and 2017 at syringe exchanges, and we’ve asked them: ‘Do you want to stop or reduce your opiate use?’ 78 percent of people say yes,” ADAI research scientist Caleb Banta-Green told MyNorthwest in 2018.

The hope from lawmakers pushing to pass HB 1499 is to have treatment options readily available for those who need it most. The bill’s text further expands that goal, pointing out that when people are grappling with drug addiction, they are more likely to accept support when it comes in the form of “meaningful, person-centered support and interventions from a trusted source.”

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Washington’s bill also differs from Oregon’s recently-enacted laws in several key ways. In Oregon, drug users are still subject to a $100 fine and a civil infraction for drug possession; Washington’s proposed law does not include any such punishment. Oregon’s bill also pulls funding from the state’s legal marijuana revenue, while Washington’s would instead seek to use money from the state’s general fund, and from taxes imposed on drug manufacturers.

The bill also does not currently include guidelines or benchmarks that delineate the difference between “personal use” and “intent to distribute,” although in spirit, it hopes to focus on diversionary assistance for the former. If passed, it would seek to “develop a robust system” to add further details on aspects like cutoffs for quantities sometime in the future.

HB 1499 is scheduled for a public hearing in the state House’s public safety committee on Friday, Feb. 12 at 10 a.m.

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Lawmakers aim to have Washington join Oregon in decriminalizing drug possession