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 accessing services and finding housing and a job. 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. A review of Washington State drug sentences from 1995 through 1998 demonstrated that Black defendants were 62% more likely to be sentenced to prison than similarly situated white defendants. In 2020, Native Americans in Washington State accounted for 4.6% of drug arrests (where the race of the arrestee is known), while making up only 1.9% of the population. Black Washingtonians comprised 12.5% of the arrests while making up only 4.3% of the population.
Barriers to treatment, sometimes created by criminal system involvement, 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.
People die of opioid-related overdose every day in Washington; thousands more struggle with addiction. We need a new approach to reduce overdose deaths, which surpassed 2,000 in WA in 2021, and other substance use public health impacts, and to improve access to treatment and recovery.