Voters in Oregon passed a landmark measure Tuesday making it the first state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs including heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine.
And now, Washington could be next.
Critics of the nation’s war on drugs have launched a proposal similar to Oregon’s Measure 110, aimed for Washington’s 2021 legislative session. It would move the state away from arrests and jail for persons caught with small amounts of hard drugs.
Like the Oregon initiative, which passed overwhelmingly in the Nov. 3 election, the Washington proposal, known as the Treatment and Recovery Act, would decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs deemed for personal use and substantially increase funding for treatment.
“We are so excited about the Oregon measure and what it means for Washington state,” said Christina Blocker, a spokeswoman for the Treatment First Washington campaign, during a virtual news conference on Wednesday.
Peter Zuckerman, the campaign manager for Measure 110, called it “the biggest drug reform victory in U.S. history.” The proposal passed with 59% of the vote. “That’s more than a landslide. It’s practically a double landslide,” he said.
Oregon’s reforms had fierce critics, including prosecutors and the state’s Republican Party, which argued the “radical” measure goes too far. It also was opposed by former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, who said he agreed with the goals but believed the plan would weaken the ability of courts to require drug treatment for offenders, according to Willamette Week.
But Tuesday’s election results showed momentum nationally is on the side of advocates of rolling back the U.S. war on drugs, which studies show has resulted in mass incarceration disproportionately harming people of color.
In addition to the Oregon vote, measures legalizing marijuana were passing or leading this week in New Jersey, Arizona, Montana and South Dakota. Washington voters agreed to legalize recreational marijuana sales in 2012.
Under the new Washington proposal, minor drug possession charges would no longer be treated as criminal misdemeanors. Instead, they would become civil infractions, similar to traffic tickets. Selling or manufacturing of illegal drugs would remain crimes.
The precise amount of drugs that would be deemed “personal use” would be decided by an advisory panel, including public-health experts, law enforcement, and treatment providers. If approved by the 2021 Legislature, the new law would take effect in 2023, according to Blocker.
Persons caught possessing personal amounts of drugs would undergo mandatory assessments where they’d be connected with treatment services. If the person attended the assessment within 72 hours, their civil infraction would be dropped.
The proposal also would boost state funding for substance use disorder treatment and recovery by $125 million – an increase of nearly 30%. It also would direct $10 million a year to a statewide substance use education campaign. Funding would come from existing marijuana tax revenues.
Molly Carney, former executive director of Seattle’s Evergreen Treatment
Center, said a treatment-first approach is key to helping people reduce or quit using drugs.
Carney said arrests and jail do little to help break the cycle of addiction and underlying issues such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, which are rampant in people experiencing homelessness.
“We have got to stop criminalizing a public health problem,” she said.
The Legislature will take up the proposal when it convenes in January. Blocker said supporters are working on determining prime sponsors in the state House and Senate.