Treatment First Washington, a coalition of public health experts, treatment professionals, legal and law enforcement experts, elected officials, community leaders of Black, Brown, Indigenous, and People of Color, and formerly incarcerated and directly impacted individuals announced the launch of a drive to qualify a statewide initiative to the November 2020 ballot. The Substance Use Disorder Treatment, Recovery, and Education Act (“Treatment and Recovery Act”) has been filed with the Secretary of State and designated Initiative 1715.
Coalition members say Washingtonians across the state agree the so-called “War on Drugs” is failing, and the initiative will better address Washington’s growing substance use disorder crisis that costs the state hundreds of millions of dollars each year, tears apart families and communities, and results in more than a thousand deaths annually (1,173 deaths in 2018 alone). (Learn more about Washington state’s substance use disorder crisis.)
“We must increase help for people suffering from substance use disorders who, during COVID-19, may be relapsing or getting worse while isolated from friends and family, losing a job, or being exposed to domestic violence and other traumas that can lead to substance abuse,” says Chris Stearns, Auburn City Councilmember who has spent the last thirty years working as an attorney, government leader, and public policy advocate of justice and human rights.
The Treatment and Recovery Act would make Washington one of the first states to replace arrest and prosecution for personal drug use with expanded access to programs and services through a public health approach. The measure is similar to an initiative introduced in Oregon and builds on policies enacted in several European countries, including Portugal and the Netherlands, that refer people found in possession of drugs to assessment and connection to the right treatment and recovery services to help them get their lives back on track. These countries have experienced significant drops in overdose deaths and related health issues. (Learn more about the Treatment and Recovery Act.)
“Substance use disorder is a health issue, not a criminal issue. To treat it effectively, we must address its root causes. Treatment First Washington would both address substance use disorder and ultimately lower costs for state and local governments,” said Dr. Kim Thorburn, a former prison physician in Spokane who has endorsed the measure. “We want to bring those benefits to Washington and create sustainable, cost-effective wellness for people suffering from substance use disorders.”
Funding would include annual distributions of $125 million to local and tribal governments and nonprofit entities across the state for tailored treatment and recovery services to include case management, mental health care, housing, and job training; $10 million to local health departments for a public education campaign about substance use disorders and how to connect to services; and $500,000 for law enforcement training. Funds would be redirected from a portion of existing marijuana excise taxes, and the measure also directs the state to leverage existing health insurance to cover services.
The measure would reduce personal drug use offenses from crimes to civil infractions. Drug manufacture and delivery would remain felonies. “This measure does not decriminalize drug trafficking,” noted Les Liggins, a retired narcotics captain with the Seattle Police Department. “It’s focused on people struggling with substance use disorders who represent the overwhelming majority of drug arrests. These individuals cycle through our courts and jails over and over, and we rarely see positive outcomes for them or their communities,” he elaborated. “We can achieve better results by shifting our focus and resources to connecting them to treatment and recovery.”
Campaign leaders hope the measure will help address racial disparities in the criminal justice system, particularly pronounced in drug law enforcement. “There are vast systemic inequities that have resulted in communities of color living in overpoliced, economically disadvantaged communities,” said Keith Blocker, who currently serves as Deputy Mayor of Tacoma’s City Council. “There are countless data that show the ‘War on Drugs’ did not affect all Americans equally, but instead excessively targeted our communities of color. I’ve personally witnessed it within my own community.”
The proposed measure has garnered support from leaders of Washington’s legal community as well. Salvador Mungia, former President of the Washington State Bar Association and partner with the law firm Gordon Thomas Honeywell, stated, “Ultimately, criminal investigations and trials are not the right tools to address our substance use disorder crisis. This is a job for our medical and public health professionals.”
The campaign will begin with mail-only petition circulation and continue monitoring public health developments to determine whether and when public signature gathering utilizing social distancing and additional protective measures could be added.