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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: State must avoid Oregon’s drug-policy errors

The Columbian
Published: January 23, 2023, 6:03am

As Washington lawmakers consider adjustments to the state’s drug laws, additional evidence is emerging about what not to do — direct people to treatment that is hard to find or nonexistent.

In 2020, Oregon voters passed a statewide measure decriminalizing personal-use amounts of even the most dangerous drugs. The plan was to focus on treatment rather than punishment, with hundreds of millions of dollars in marijuana tax revenue being channeled toward treatment programs.

But a recent state audit indicates that the plan is not working as intended. Care networks have not been bolstered as expected, and Oregon has the nation’s second-highest rate of substance abuse while ranking 50th in access to treatment.

“When Oregonians passed Measure 110, we expected that our loved ones battling addiction would have access to treatment and a chance for a better life,” Secretary of State Shemia Fagan said in the wake of the report. “We expected there will be fewer of our neighbors struggling on the streets.”

States often are referred to as laboratories of democracy, with the United States’ federalist form of government allowing for innovation and experimentation on a relatively small scale. Ideas that germinate at the state level often develop into national policy, with trial and error improving those ideas.

Along the way, other states can learn from the mistakes of their neighbors. That means Washington lawmakers should pay heed to what happens when there is a shortage of treatment facilities.

In February 2021, the state Supreme Court ruled in State v. Blake that Washington’s primary drug criminalization law was unconstitutional. As ACLU Washington explains, the court ruled that “the law criminalized ‘unknowing’ drug possession and people could be arrested and convicted even if they did not realize they had drugs in their possession.”

By overturning the law, the Supreme Court threw a wrench into drug enforcement policy. In addition to having thousands of drug convictions called into question, Washington had effectively allowed the possession of all drugs. Selling narcotics remained illegal, but the state was left without a mechanism for compelling addicts to seek treatment.

The Legislature, with short notice, passed Engrossed Senate Bill 5476 as a stopgap. Under that law, somebody is offered treatment for the first two drug-possession offenses and is charged with a misdemeanor on the third offense. The law expires July 1, and lawmakers have planned all along to address it this year.

Policymakers have increasingly questioned punitive drug laws. Indeed, severe punishment for minor offenses is Draconian and has been applied inequitably by race. The legalization of recreational marijuana use in Washington and 20 other states demonstrates awareness of the deleterious impact of strict drug laws.

Washington should focus on bolstering treatment programs and provide a path toward help for residents who need it. But broad decriminalization is not the best method for achieving that goal. Lawmakers should reinforce that illegal drugs are illegal for a reason — an important objective given an ongoing opioid crisis.

It is too early to fully assess Oregon’s experimentation with decriminalization, and officials there point to the need for vast changes in that state’s behavioral health system. Washington is in need of similar changes. As lawmakers consider how that relates to drug policy, they also can learn some important lessons from our neighbor to the south.