Wednesday, March 22, 2023
March 22, 2023

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Westneat: Between prison, pamphlets

Washington looks for a solution to the drug crisis


Having drugs like fentanyl and meth is still illegal in this state. But lawmakers heard this past week how distant that restriction is from reality.

“I asked prosecutors around the state: Who is actually prosecuting these cases right now? The answer is nobody,” Chad Enright, the elected prosecuting attorney for Kitsap County, told a state Senate Law and Justice Committee.

We have a new law in Washington that’s designed to push treatment in lieu of punishment, as a way of backing off the damaging war on drugs. So far it’s been as light with the treatment as it is with the punishment.

“If somebody is stopped by police and in possession of a controlled substance, the best we can do in my community is give them a pamphlet that says, ‘Here are your options for drug treatment,’ ” Enright told legislators.

I am in the camp that believes jail is no way to treat drug addiction. Using drugs ought to make you a potential patient, not a criminal. But handing out pamphlets? That seems as ineffectual, only in the opposite direction.

The hearing was the start of what will be the most consequential debate in local politics for 2023. How hard, or how soft, should society be on drug users, to try to stem the crisis that has become a leading cause of death for people here under age 50?

In 2021, the courts tossed out a decades-old law that made possessing drugs like heroin or meth a felony. In a rush, the Legislature downgraded it to a misdemeanor, except only on the third offense. For the first two offenses, people are supposed to be directed to treatment instead.

This new approach — advertised as not too hard, not too soft — seemed like cobbled-together progress at the time.

But it plainly isn’t working. The treatment isn’t there. Police are still making arrests for drug-dealing, but when somebody is picked up for drug possession, there’s no database that keeps track of whether they’ve been offered treatment before. So nobody knows where anybody is in this three-step process.

Washington ranks third worst in the nation for illicit drug use disorder, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, released in December 2021. (Our neighbor Oregon is the worst.) Just as concerning, though, is that we rank next to last in delivering drug treatment to adults and teens who say they need it. (Only Oregon is worse.)

More than 2,000 people died of drug overdoses last year in Washington, a 66 percent jump since 2019. So it’s been declared priority No. 1 for lawmakers to come up with something else — pronto. A state advisory committee has come out with a bold recommendation: Decriminalize the drugs, with no penalties.

That means if police catch someone with meth or fentanyl, they could only refer them to social services, unless the person had committed some other crime. The key then would be to massively boost treatment programs, and count on encouragement and other controversial harm-reduction strategies to get patients to go to them.

It’s not legalizing heroin and meth, said defense attorney John Hayden of Port Angeles, who is on the advisory committee. But it’s adjacent.

“We’re no longer going to bring to bear on this public health problem all the resources of the criminal justice system,” he said. “It hasn’t been money well spent. It’s frankly for years been money wasted.”

A similarly permissive setup down in Oregon isn’t working, though, at least not yet. Drug possession there gets you a $100 civil fine, like a speeding ticket, after they decriminalized drugs last year. They’ll waive the fine if you call a drug hotline. But out of 3,169 people ticketed through August, fewer than 200 ventured to make even this one treatment phone call, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. The vast majority of tickets were ignored.

Places that have decriminalized drugs more successfully — Portugal is often cited — still exert strong pressure, even as they may no longer send addicts to criminal courts. People caught with drugs in Portugal are given a summons to appear before a “drug dissuasion” group, made up of a doctor, a social worker and a legal expert. That group guides a treatment program and can impose penalties, from fines to revoking licenses. It’s treatment and therapy focused, but it also isn’t messing around.

It’s definitely not just handing them a pamphlet.

I don’t envy state lawmakers, as there isn’t going to be an exact right answer. With drug addiction, even the alternative-to-jail programs, like drug court, can fail as much as they succeed.

Somewhere between prison and pamphlets. It’s a wide space, but that’s where lawmakers ought to be aiming.