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WHY COMMIT TO CHANGE WA?

In 2020, Commit to Change WA, under its previous name Treatment First Washington, filed I-1715 with the Washington Secretary of State. We decided not to try to qualify it to the November 2020 ballot during the initial outbreak of COVID-19 and instead set to work with lawmakers and allies in the 2021 legislative session to advance HB 1499—a strong piece of legislation that would have ended arrests, jail time, and criminal records for personal drug possession and use.

Then, in February 2021, the Washington State Supreme Court decided State v. Blake and ruled that Washington’s drug possession law was unconstitutional. The Court noted the law “has affected thousands upon thousands of lives, and its impact has hit young men of color especially hard.” The Court’s invocation of racial injustices that have been documented over decades gave us reason to hope the legislature would finally consign this unjust and broken law to the dustbin of history.

Instead, the legislature passed ESB 5476 and re-criminalized possession. ESB 5476 also required development of a new statewide substance use recovery services plan, but it didn’t dedicate any funding for the services to be provided, leaving it to the legislature to decide whether and what to appropriate each budget cycle. ESB 5476 also included a sunset provision that will cause the new criminal provisions to expire on July 1, 2023. This will revert the state back to having an unconstitutional law on the books unless the legislature were to take further action. 

So, Washington’s law is unsettled, and its path forward unclear.

Criminalization ruins lives. The majority of Washingtonians have long recognized that treating personal possession and use of drugs as crime further harms members of our community. A simple drug possession arrest can land someone in jail and saddle them with a lifelong criminal record that prevents them from getting a job, a place to live, or a student loan. These unfairly harsh punishments are handed out unevenly depending on where people live, how much money they have, and the color of their skin. To make matters worse, the economic harms inflicted by one person’s drug conviction impact entire families and flow from one generation to the next.

Washingtonians are ready for change. A recent poll of Washington voters confirmed that more than seven in ten (71%) believe the best way to address drug use is through engagement, health care, treatment, and recovery services addressing the root causes of substance use disorder while fewer than one quarter (23%) would like to keep drug possession a crime.

We look forward to working with our fellow Washingtonians to advance a November 2022 ballot initiative that commits to the following:

  • Stop treating drug use as a crime and remove the fear of arrest as a barrier to engagement and recovery
  • Commits robust, and long-term funding to a plan informed by the lived experiences of people harmed by the War on Drugs
  • Emphasizes public health approaches that focus on the social determinants of health and meet the needs of rural and urban communities across the state

We’re committed to change. Join us.

 

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 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. 

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.

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.