When Julian Saucier’s recreational drug use became an addiction, he didn’t know what to do.

Saucier had a loving and supportive family but was ashamed to tell them what he was going through and didn’t know where to get help. 

Eventually Saucier’s addiction got worse and led to a federal drug conviction in 2006, for which he served five years in prison.

Like many with a substance use disorder, Saucier needed behavioral health help but was sent behind bars instead. Since the February state Supreme Court decision Blake v. Washington, which effectively decriminalized drug possession, the state now has an opportunity to shift its failed drug policies away from punishment and toward treatment.

Saucier said when he went into prison he was suicidal. “I was in a state where … I was just hating myself, not hearing the positive stuff,” Saucier said. In his mind, all he could think of was, “What a letdown you are. What a failure you are.” He felt all his previous accomplishments — a degree in computer science, a successful career in computer consulting — were washed away.

In prison, another incarcerated person reached out and invited Saucier into the prison yard and taught him to practice yoga. “He really taught me how to quiet my mind and take control of what I was thinking, to breathe … and to start hearing the positive things that my family and my friends were telling me. ‘We love you. We care about you. You’re going to get through this and be OK,’ ” Saucier said.

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Yet when he was released, far from a clean start, he found his troubles followed him. With a felony conviction, finding housing or a job was a huge barrier. He ended up spending most of his earnings on a hotel room because he couldn’t rent an apartment.

Ultimately, Saucier found a job as a peer support counselor and later manager at RI International, a nonprofit mental health crisis organization. There, his experiences were seen as an asset, not a deficit, and he was able to help others facing the challenges he did. In 2019, Saucier was named the executive director of Seattle-based Yoga Behind Bars.

Saucier is just one of many Washingtonians whose lives have been upended by the failed war on drugs. As he describes it, “the trauma of going to prison was a lot more traumatic than my drug use.”

The cost of criminalizing drug use is enormous.

There’s the financial cost, which according to a study cited by the Treatment First Washington coalition, showed every dollar spent on substance use disorder treatment saves $4 in health care costs and $7 in criminal justice costs.

And then there is the human cost. In 2018, for example, the Drug Policy Alliance reported 1.4 million people were arrested for possession in the U.S. Criminalizing drug possession leaves a trail of destruction for everyone it touches: the individual, their families and our whole community. The drug war leaves children without access to their parents and formerly incarcerated people unable to get jobs or find housing.

But the pain is not spread equally. Racial disparities in drug criminalization are well established. In King County, 40% of people convicted of possession are African American, even though African Americans only make up 7% of the county population. Black defendants in Washington state are 62% more likely than white defendants to be sentenced to prison on felony drug charges, according to a Seattle University report on race and criminal justice. 

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An effort was already underway to decriminalize drug possession in Washington state through House Bill 1499, the Pathways to Recovery Act, introduced this legislative session, of which Yoga Behind Bars is a supporter. The bill would have not only made Washington the second state (after Oregon) to decriminalize personal possession, but would have invested in comprehensive treatment and intervention programs as well.

But in late February, a legal bombshell hit Washington in the form of the state Supreme Court’s Blake decision. The decision is widely believed to mean that past possession convictions will be vacated, other convictions resentenced and potentially millions in fines and fees reimbursed.

Now the state is at a critical crossroads. With less than a month left in the legislative session, competing bills are aiming to fill the gaps left by Blake. In one GOP-supported bill, for example, municipalities would be allowed to create a patchwork of their own laws re-criminalizing possession, which has already happened in Marysville and Lewis County

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But now lawmakers are looking at a different approach proposed in state Democratic Sen. Manka Dhingra’s Senate Bill 5476, which would legalize personal possession up to a limit, but re-criminalize possession for people under 21, bar municipalities from coming up with their own laws and connect those with substance abuse disorder with local treatment services through “forensic navigators” through the Department of Social and Health Services. Public use would be barred and fined.

State Rep. Tarra Simmons knows all too well the cruelty of drug criminalization and understands the urgency and need for new strategies. As a formerly incarcerated person who struggled with addiction, she believes action does need to be taken this session, but any amount of re-criminalization weighs heavily on her, “because I know the pain of the families who go through the criminal legal system,” she said.

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Simmons said it’s time to start treating substance use disorder as the public health issue that it is.

Everett Maroon is the executive director of Walla Walla’s Blue Mountain Heart to Heart, a nonprofit serving the needs of people with HIV and AIDS and substance use disorder. He sees the need for an approach that is rooted in a health-equity, harm-reduction and trauma-informed lens. But it will take time and major investments to make the shift.

“There’s no silver bullet here,” Maroon said. “I think it’s hard work for some people to really get into established recovery, but I see the successes every day and just want that opportunity to be the first option that we give people instead of jail, because jail isn’t leading to anybody’s success.”