It is with a heavy heart that we write to let you know that the Commit to Change WA team made the difficult decision to cease signature gathering efforts this weekend. We will not be moving forward to qualify Washington State Initiative Measure No. 1922 to the November 8 general election ballot. Signature gathering proved more challenging and prohibitively expensive than projected. This is especially hard news for us, because we were going to win. A recent poll by Data for Progress found that Washington voters supported I-1922 by a very wide margin – upon reading the ballot language, 67% said they’d vote for the measure and only 22% against it, with 11% undecided.
Once again, we have encountered an obstacle that requires us to change course. Fortunately, all of us, including our wonderful supporters, are by now well practiced in the art of pivoting. We know our work must continue; Washington State’s current drug possession penalties are set to expire July 1, 2023, and we expect the legislature to take up the matter in the 2023 session that begins January 9.
For now, we are pausing to rest and recharge our batteries. We hope you will join us in taking a moment to reflect on our shared accomplishments since we started this journey in 2020:
When we halted signature gathering for Initiative 1715 to support public health efforts against the spread of COVID-19, we worked with legislators and allies to retool the measure as House Bill 1499, the Pathways to Recovery Act. HB 1499 received a powerful hearing and was voted out of the House Public Safety Committee on February 15, 2021.
Six days later, the Washington State Supreme Court handed down State v. Blake, a decision holding that Washington’s drug possession statute was unconstitutional because it did not include a mens rea element – a requirement that prosecutors prove a person knew they were in possession of a drug before they could be found guilty.
We worked hard with allies to encourage the legislature to take this opportunity to replace a bad law with one that would finally stop throwing people in jail for drug use and would instead focus on public health strategies that address the root causes of substance use disorder. The legislature passed Engrossed Senate Bill 5476, which included a roadmap for building out a statewide recovery network that echoed a proposal included in Initiative 1715 and HB 1499 (compare Sec. 1 of ESB 5476, codified at RCW 71.24.546, with Sec. 2 and 3 of HB 1499, and Sec. 2 of Initiative 1715) – including a requirement that, to be eligible to receive state funding, service providers would have to adhere to the following principles:
- Establish low barriers to entry and reentry;
- Improve the health and safety of the individual;
- Reduce the harm of substance use and related activity for the public;
- Include integrated and coordinated services;
- Incorporate structural competency and antiracism;
- Use noncoercive methods of engaging and retaining people in treatment and recovery services, including contingency management;
- Consider the unique needs of rural communities; and
- Have a focus on services that increase social determinants of health.
However, ESB 5476 also reinstated criminalization of people found in possession of drugs. We decided we had to continue working to end the damage inflicted disproportionately on BIPOC communities by this devastating War on Drugs strategy.
- We introduced Initiative 1870 on January 12 this year, hoping to maximize the amount of time we would have to gather signatures before the July 8 deadline. Unfortunately, the legislature advanced a bill that significantly reorganized RCW 69.50.540, which structures how cannabis revenues are appropriated. Since our approach from the outset of this effort has been to dedicate cannabis revenues not already dedicated to other purposes to prevention, treatment, and recovery support services, we had to rewrite and refile our measure to accommodate the changes made by Engrossed Second Substitute Senate Bill 5796. We filed Initiative 1922 on March 11. We drew a ballot title challenge on March 31. We won the challenge on April 21. We printed petitions and were in the field gathering signatures on April 28.
This has been a long and winding road, and we continue to be deeply grateful to all of you for joining us on this journey. We’re sad not to be able to give you the opportunity this November to weigh in on Washington’s approach to drug use and substance use disorder, but we’re counting on you being ready to weigh in with the legislature in January. The criminal provisions in ESB 5476 expire July 1, 2023, and proponents of the bill have said that’s intended to create an opportunity for the legislature to revisit whether it’s finally time to stop criminalizing people who use drugs and focus instead on public health strategies we know are more effective at addressing the root causes of substance use disorder.
We know the answer is a resounding “Yes!”