When state lawmakers have met these past weeks to talk about what to do in the wake of the unexpected court ruling that decriminalized drug possession, the hearings have been filled mostly with prosecutors, defense lawyers, police chiefs and addiction counselors.
Then there’s Kurtis Robinson.
“I did the crime, I did the time,” he likes to say.
Robinson is so open about something most people would try to bury — his drug-addicted criminal past — that he works with an organization in Spokane whose literal name is: I Did The Time. It’s a way of owning and rebranding that hectoring cliché that goes “If you can’t do the time, then don’t do the crime.”
His message to lawmakers in Olympia marks an ocean liner of a societal turn, so it’s hard for many of them to hear.
“Prosecution and incarceration don’t work,” Robinson, 56, told state senators earlier this month. “I’m living proof that treatment works. Treatment needs to be the first thing, not the last thing after all these other things we’ve been trying for so long.”
The state may or may not be on the cusp of a sea change in drug policy. There have been signs it may take steps toward easing the disastrous war on drugs. But increasingly it has looked doubtful lawmakers will agree on a course before the Legislature is set to adjourn Sunday.
The difficulty is understandable. Drug addiction is a complex health problem, one that often gets intertwined with other criminal behavior. Teasing out exactly how to retreat from the war on drugs isn’t simple.
The notion that a drug user is also a criminal is so ingrained in American culture that there doesn’t appear to be the votes right now to decriminalize the possession of drugs, even in our blue state. Nor, maybe, are there the votes to recriminalize it, after the state Supreme Court ruled the state’s felony drug possession law was unconstitutional. So we may end up stuck with a patchwork, in which there is no state law and every city and county designs its own mini drug policy on the fly.
Robinson says he became addicted to crack in the 1980s, and started committing crimes to support his habit. Eventually he was sent to jail for a robbery. About that part of the story, he doesn’t really have a complaint.
“Society has to be able to set boundaries, to say ‘no, you can’t do that,’ ” he says.
But jail provided zero help for his drug addiction. He kept failing drug tests, which meant he was either denied release or judged to have violated probation. He got trapped in a jail-drug cycle.
“At some point you need help,” he says.
Finally a probation officer got Robinson into a long-term inpatient treatment program. It changed the trajectory of his life, he says. But still it took more than another decade before it truly stuck. He says he’s been clean and sober now for 17 years, has worked as a wildland firefighter and also with the Spokane NAACP.
“I think I may have had as much trouble getting over the trauma of jail as I did the trauma of drugs,” he says. “They were wrapped up together, and I couldn’t get free of either one.”
One of the reasons I think we’re having so much political difficulty with this issue is that “decriminalizing drugs” sounds like they’re being made legal. But the proposals to decriminalize simple drug possession do not make heroin, meth or cocaine legal. Nor do they make it OK to manufacture or deal these “hard” drugs.
What they say is that drug abuse is a disease, so using drugs makes you a potential patient, not a criminal. You can still be arrested for any other crime, but the act of using a drug (or possessing small amounts) becomes primarily a health concern, not a prosecutorial one.
Last week the state Senate headed in that direction. It passed a bill making drug possession a gross misdemeanor, which is down from a more serious felony. It constructively added that prosecutors are required to divert a person’s first and second offenses to treatment, rather than seeking incarceration.
There’s also a bill in the state House that goes further. It’s modeled on a new Oregon law that makes drug possession a civil penalty only, meaning offenders would get the equivalent of a speeding ticket, with a $125 fine. The fine could be waived if you show up for a drug counseling session.
Critics say that people with addiction problems often need the stick of criminal prosecution to compel them into tackling treatment. Robinson says that can be true for some, and not for others. But the key is to push treatment first and always. Some will take it and some won’t, and that’s the way it goes.
“If you’re an addict, it means you’re having a health crisis, often trauma-induced,” he said. “So no, I don’t feel that simple possession should be a crime. America is obsessed with criminalizing stuff.”
It’s never made sense that using a drug, by itself, makes you a crook. It’s past time we broke that chain of “I did the time,” and tried something new.