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May 7, 2021

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Donnelly: Washington’s new approach on drugs carries risk

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On April 24, the Washington State Senate, led by Democrats, approved a new treatment-oriented approach to possession of hard drugs that reduces the crime from felony to misdemeanor. Concurring with the more lenient House version, and over the objections of Republicans, the Senate vote largely decriminalized possession of the most dangerous controlled substances on our streets.

Governor Inslee will approve the measure, which may lead to full decriminalization in two years.

The Legislature was forced to act. On Feb. 25, the state Supreme Court ruled in State v. Blake that Washington’s felony drug possession law was unconstitutional in not requiring intent to possess the substance. The ruling effectively decriminalized heroin, methamphetamine and other potentially lethal drugs.

The Supreme Court’s scrutiny is part of a national readjustment of social attitudes toward hard drugs and marijuana. The War on Drugs, which combined strong messaging with police enforcement and prison sentences, is increasingly out of favor.

It likely turned millions away from drug experimentation, including school kids who consistently heard the message “Just Say No.” Yet, millions more did not heed the message, then or since.

Under the new approach, kids will now hear a more tolerant message. The consequences are uncertain.

The sad fact is that modern society is as plagued today by the impacts of drugs – homelessness, property crime, intractable mental illness, traffic deaths, child abuse, broken homes – as in the 1970s. The April 17 shooting at The Waterfront Vancouver stemmed from attempted crime committed by individuals on methamphetamine. Drug cartels, increasingly dominant on our border, import the world’s most harmful substances to an increasingly lucrative U.S. market. They brazenly involve innocent children in their crimes.

Last year has been described as the deadliest in drug history and for substance abuse, according to Addictioncenter.com. A growing dual crisis today, mental illness and homelessness, is worsened under the influence of hard drugs or marijuana. Will the new approach help or hinder? Its impacts must be closely monitored.

The secret to treating drug addiction is complex and individual, as many families have observed. For some individuals, the impetus to get treatment is the fear of returning to jail. For others, the incentive comes from family support, or from a spiritual awakening. As is common with human behavior, “the carrot” and “the stick” each play a role. What happens with much less “stick”?

Washington’s new approach aims to “make addiction go as far upstream as possible to have a therapeutic intervention rather than a punitive intervention,” according to Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland. It aims to provide “continual, rapid, and widespread access to a comprehensive continuum of care to all persons with substance abuse disorder.”

A praiseworthy objective, but realistic?

Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, calls the costs of implementing this transformative plan “massive,” including $25 million to $47 million to repay “legal financial obligations, $20 million to $33 million to pay for resentencing hearings,” and more. The bill provides $45 million from the state budget. Each biennium, appropriations for long-term statewide programs and for essential monitoring are at risk as state priorities shift.

Republican Sen. John Braun worries that rural areas will lack resources. Deeply affected by the drug-related death of his nephew, he objected, saying “he lives in a place where they have no method to use our legal system to … keep folks in treatment. People will die because of the path we’re taking.”

We must do our best not to let that happen.

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