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Washington State Introduces Bill to Decriminalize Drug Possession

Washington State lawmakers introduced a bill on Thursday that aims to decriminalize possession small amounts of all drugs and provide better treatment facilities for people suffering from substance abuse disorder.

“It is the intent of this act to expand the availability of and facilitate access to effective, health-based approaches to the substance use disorder crisis facing our state,” bill HB 1499, or the Pathways to Recovery Act says. “…and to direct people with substance use disorder to treatment and recovery services through changes to laws criminalizing drug use,” it adds. The bill is being sponsored by Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley (D) and Rep. Lauren Davis (D).

The bill proposes a “common-sense approach” to improve public safety by removing criminal penalties for the personal use of controlled substances and “expanding proven treatment and support services for substance use disorder” to people in need.

In a press conference on Thursday, the sponsors and advocates shared the details of the bill. HB 1499 largely resembles the Oregon effort to decriminalize possession. Oregon’s Measure 110, deregulating possession of small amounts of drugs, was implemented earlier this month.

“Our current system doesn’t equip our first responders with the tools to help when they desperately want to, often when they encounter our loved ones in those circumstances,” Rep. Talley said. “We need community care. A circle of people holding our hands and helping us find our way as we walk that path. The Pathways to Recovery Act is going to provide proven, transformative community support for people with substance use disorder,” she adds.

The bill focuses on improving “community-wide safety and health” by emphasizing support services and recovery support systems to help overcome “the social determinants of health, including housing, education, employment pathways, community connection, peer support, and treatment.” 

Besides decriminalizing personal use of drugs, the legislation will direct the Washington State Healthcare Authority to convene a statewide committee with experts in the field of public health and safety, as well as individuals with personal experience in recovery from substance use disorders. 

All enforcement personnel, including frontline responders, will “receive training on law enforcement interaction with persons with substance use disorders, including referral to treatment and recovery services, as part of the basic law enforcement training,” the act includes.

 Rep. Talley said in the conference, “all frontline responders will know how to respond with care and love. It’s time for smart, just and effective drug policy in Washington State.” 

Drug reform advocacy organizations Treatment First Washington, Care First Washington and Recovery Alliance, had previously attempted to put forward the proposal during the November elections. However, the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted their efforts to collect signatures for the ballot. 

Another core component of the plan is to provide funding and resources for better treatment and supportive services. The substance use recovery plan will be mostly covered by state insurances like Medicaid or private healthcare plans. Those who are not covered under Medicaid or private insurance plans would be taken care of by the behavioural health administrative services organizations. “Outreach and engagement services and recovery support services that are not reimbursable through insurance will be funded through a combination of appropriations from the recovery pathways account,” the legislation says in its funding framework.

The bill is yet to determine the amount of the illicit substance that can be used for “recreational or non-medical and non-prescribed purposes” under the new law.

While sharing core messaging with Oregon’s bill “to heavily invest in public health approaches in these cases versus continuation of the criminal responsibility of arresting and prosecuting,” Mark Cooke, an ACLU of Washington attorney and consultant for Treatment First Washington, says that the Washington State bill is slightly different from Measure 110

Rep. Davis added, “Police will not be handing citations. That is something we don’t believe is related to their job. Resources should be directed towards connecting people with services. And law enforcement’s time is better spent addressing violent crimes, and that is a fundamental difference from the Oregon initiatives.”

The plan is expected to be implemented by December 1, 2022. Going forward, the authority will submit a report on the policy changes  “to the appropriate committees of the legislature and governor by December 1st of each year,” the bill says.

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