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Washington bill to decriminalize drug possession advances out of committee


In 2018, King County stopped prosecuting those busted for possession of small amounts (1 gram or less) of any drug in favor of diversion and treatment. Oregon voters recently approved a similar statewide law to decriminalize amounts of drugs deemed to be for personal use.

Lawmakers aim to have Washington decriminalize drug possession

Supporters argue it saves lives. Critics worry it’s a slippery slope that will only lead to more drug use, exacerbating what is already a crisis.

But the sponsor of a bill moving through the Washington state House that would decriminalize personal possession and use of drugs argues something must be done, pointing out that what we’ve been doing clearly is not working.

Democratic Rep. Lauren Davis has firsthand knowledge of the devastating impact of addiction that she shared with the House Public Safety Committee last week, recalling a friend struggling with addiction who called her for help.

“There was one particular night that I will never forget. He couldn’t find a vein and was growing increasingly frustrated. He would trace his bruised and swollen arms up and down looking for a spot. He bent over and tried his foot. First the right, then the left,” Davis said. “When that didn’t work, he went into the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and puffed out his neck in an effort to inject there.”

“After several hours of this, his arms, face, and legs were covered in blood. He began to weep. Tears streamed down his cheeks and he whimpered, ‘I can’t stop. I can’t stop,’” she recalled.

HB 1499 would decriminalize personal amounts of most drugs and use the criminal justice savings and additional investments to ramp up treatment options, to not only help those dealing with substance use disorder, but ensure there’s a system in place to make sure they can access crucial treatment options.

Davis says the bottom line is the criminal justice system only exacerbates the problem.

“Substance use disorder is a response to trauma. The real question is not ‘why the drugs,’ but ‘why the pain?’ Disease is about not wanting to experience, because it is too painful a place to be,” Davis explained. “When we arrest and incarcerate individuals, we only multiply the pain to be numbed.”

“One of the diagnostic criteria for substance use disorder is continued use despite negative consequences,” she added. “Therefore, it is implausible that imposing additional negative consequences through the criminal legal system will lead to a cessation of use.”

The bill calls for more investment in outreach to meet those with substance use disorders where they are at, and the inclusion of peer support hiring to ensure those offered treatment can see others have been able to get through addiction and come out the other side.

“Sometimes, if you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” Davis explained.

Support from the medical community

Several treatment providers and medical professionals spoke in favor of the bill.

“The gateway to addiction is trauma, and most of my patients had terrible traumatic experiences as a young child,” Dr. Lucinda Grandy testified, sharing stories of patients with parents who put booze in their baby bottles to quiet them as babies, or introduced them to drug use, and in some cases physically and/or sexually abused them, leading to their addiction issues.

“Dehumanizing experiences of incarceration is just the start of the next phase of trauma,” she said.

Linda Robinson spoke in strong support for the bill, explaining how it could have helped save her son’s life.

“He desperately wanted to get a job, but knew that getting hired with drug convictions on his record was unlikely — how would he pay back the money he owed for court fines without employment? He couldn’t find a way to get started on rebuilding his life,” she said.

She said it was that feeling of hopelessness and shame that left him vulnerable when his old using friends came knocking.

“After almost a year in recovery — and overwhelmed by that long shadow of his past convictions — Ryan relapsed. He died of an overdose at Harborview Medical Center in July of 2009,” Robertson said.

“We’re asking you to reimagine how we can come alongside individuals,” she continued. “They desperately need hope that if they resist the grueling, unrelenting cravings to use again, they will be rewarded with a practical path forward — we can create that path for them.”

Others shared their stories about what led them down that dark path.

“When I was between my junior and senior year of high school, I was taken advantage of by a classmate,” said Meg Martin with Interfaith Works. “I was blacked out from alcohol, and he raped me. When I woke up because of what he was doing to me, I drove home drunk that night because I was too afraid that I would get in trouble with my parents if I was honest and asked them for help. It wasn’t until I was in treatment at age 24 for heroin addiction, after overdosing from a speedball — that’s an injection of heroin mixed with cocaine — that I finally told them what had happened to me the night that I was raped.”

“The reason I am here today, a leader in my community who has made a significant change in my field, is because I had the opportunity to get the resources and the help I needed when I needed it most,” she added.

Concerns over an escalating drug crisis

Others warned the bill was a slippery slope.

“We are concerned that this may lead to a change in public perception that these drugs are more acceptable,” said Sarah Davenport-Smith with the Family Policy Institute of Washington.

She did note that decriminalization is not the same as legalization.

“But for many people in the public, it is the same — they don’t understand the nuances,” she said. “We see this playing out in the marijuana side of things, especially amongst our youth. So we are concerned.”

Law enforcement also had concerns.

“Let us make clear that Washington sheriffs and police chiefs would actively support this bill if the provisions legalizing the possession of controlled substances were removed,” said James McMahon with the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC). “We have long actively supported and continue to ask for better community investments and system improvements to assist those with substance use disorder, but such efforts should not be at the expense of public safety.”

McMahon acknowledged that the criminal justice system is not an appropriate or effective strategy to broadly address those with substance use disorder. He said WASPC also agrees that the criminal justice system should not be the most accessible path toward treatment.

“We must also acknowledge, however, that the criminal justice system has proven to be the only effective mechanism to intervene and treat many with substance use disorder,” he pointed out. “Our collective efforts should be focused to create additional community resources for intervention and treatment, rather than eliminating one of the few mechanisms that has shown to be effective in some cases.”

Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell worked hard to reverse his predecessor’s policy of not prosecuting those busted with two grams or less of any drug, but supports the state bill.

“It’s time to treat the illness that is substance use disorder as the public health threat that it is, so that we can better and more effectively address the public safety concerns that stem from the disease. It is time to recognize that what we have been doing as a state to criminally address simple possession of human controlled substance is not and cannot work,” Cornell told the committee, pointing to the lack of sufficient investment in resources and public goodwill toward those dealing with SUD, and what he called extraordinary punitive and collateral consequences of a felony conviction for simple possession, disproportionate impacts on people of color, and enduring shame for those grappling with addiction.

Is Washington state ready to decriminalize all drug possession?

Cornell stressed the bill would not decriminalize other crimes, or take away the discretion to arrest or charge those with other crimes, get rid of our drug courts, or take away the prerogative of employers to maintain a drug-free workplace. He also noted he expected an amendment that would see the change taking effect in mid-2023, allowing plenty of time to implement the new policy.

“The wisdom of the times is not timeless. It is now time for a change in a new birth of wisdom,” Cornell said.

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg was first in Washington to stop prosecuting for small amounts of drugs, but stressed to the committee the importance of the state to take complete action in passing this bill.

“The best thing about this bill is its funding and acknowledgement that the strategies to help us manage substance use disorder does not lie in prosecution, in jail, and in courts. For tiny amounts of drugs, that strategy is much better in the community, making those connections,” Satterberg explained.

“So, as difficult as passing this bill might be, I think the real challenge for this Legislature is to fund it,” he continued. “And that’s where the rubber meets the road here. Let’s build something else that works better. If we don’t, there’ll be a backlash, and there’d be a lot of push to double down on re-criminalization of possession.”

The bill passed out of committee Tuesday and has been referred to the House Appropriations Committee.

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