Recent legislative changes to drug possession laws in Washington are a step backward.
Decades of treating personal use as a crime has only made matters worse. Our current drug use laws can ruin lives based on a single mistake.
Possession of even a small amount of drugs can land someone in jail and saddle them with a lifelong criminal record that interferes with getting a job, housing, or student loans. Substance use-related “[a]rrest and incarceration often destabilize an individual’s life, including their housing, health care, employment, and social connectedness,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Recovery is hard enough as it is, but incarceration makes it more difficult, and disproportionately impacts Black, Indigenous, and people of color - among felony drug offenders in Washington, Black defendants are 62% more likely to be sentenced to prison than similarly situated White defendants. In 2018 Washington State, Native Americans accounted for 3.4% of drug arrests (where the race of the arrestee is know), while making up only 1.9% of the population. For African Americans, it's even worse - 11% of the arrests, while making up only 4.3% of the population.
Barriers to treatment, as well as criminal prosecution, disproportionately impact communities of color. For example, Native Americans/Alaskan Natives have one of the highest overdose rates for opioids in Washington State, and in the nation.
Each day about two people die of an opioid-related overdose in Washington; thousands more struggle with addiction. We need a new approach to reduce overdose deaths (1,173 in WA in 2018) and other substance use public health impacts, and improve access to treatment and recovery.
We need a better approach.
We need to stop doubling down on a broken system, and invest in permanent access to treatment and recovery services.
We need to address the root causes of substance use disorders with programs and services that actually work and are more cost effective than jail.
The estimated cost of substance use disorders to Washington state is at least $6 billion per year, including direct and indirect public costs related to crime, health, and productivity. Substance use disorder treatment is more effective and costs much less than punishment. Research shows that every dollar spent on substance use disorder treatment saves $4 in health care costs and $7 in criminal justice costs.
Instead of prosecution and incarceration, we must provide people with substance use disorders with greater access to treatment and recovery services such as 24/7 triage centers for people in crisis, case management, mental and physical health care, housing, and job training.
Washingtonians support a new approach.
In a 2021 survey (download PDF) that examined ‘Washington Voter Views of Drug Policy Reform After the Blake Decision', the data showed that 7 out of 10 people in Washington state prefer an approach based on engagement, healthcare, treatment and recovery versus the state’s current criminal justice approach to dealing with drug use.
This has worked elsewhere.
Several European countries, such as Portugal, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic, have treated drug possession as a public health issue instead of a crime for decades. All three of these countries have much lower rates of substance use disorder and overdose deaths than the U.S. This measure builds off these lessons and provides us an opportunity to expand on their success.
Oregon and parts of Washington have stopped charging people who possess small amounts of drugs with felonies – and studies have shown it has already led to fewer collateral consequences, like loss of employment opportunities, and greater racial equity. In 2014, California reduced its penalty for drug possession – helping save the state $156 million and reinvesting the proceeds in drug treatment, mental health services, programs for at-risk youth in public schools, and victim services. Similar laws have been implemented in places like Oklahoma and Utah.
Remove barriers to recovery.
Policies that temporarily fund treatment, but erect barriers through criminalization are ineffective and continue the War on Drugs.