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.