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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.
News / Opinion / Columns

Westneat: Four take-aways of drug law

Decriminalization dream is dead – for now, anyway

By Danny Westneat
Published: May 22, 2023, 6:01am

The great drug debate in Washington has ended, with state lawmakers wrapping up a special session on the topic Tuesday. Here are four take-aways on where we ended up on what was the biggest issue of the year.

One: They did something.

I realize that sounds underwhelming, given that the surge in drug overdoses is the state’s most pressing emergency. And also because they had two years to figure this out, since the state Supreme Court threw out the old drug possession law back in 2021.

But the state faced a disaster of neglect when lawmakers adjourned last month, without agreeing on anything. Their inaction would have decriminalized drugs with no treatment network in place. As well as prompting a hodgepodge of regulations city by city — so maybe we’d have a full “war on drugs” town over there, alongside a “do-as-you-please” city over here.

That they finally elevated the drug crisis to the top of the ledger, and did something coherent about it, is by itself a big deal.

It means there now should be standard rules in place everywhere, with both drug possession and the public use of hard drugs classified as gross misdemeanors (the latter offense being new).

It also means $63 million in funding, including grants for new efforts at combating addiction outside the criminal justice system, such as the “health engagement hub” model that a University of Washington addiction expert said in Tuesday’s Seattle Times is the real answer.

Will this sticks-and-carrots approach work? Several legislators suggested the issue was so fraught that, in the end, “something is better than nothing” was the argument that actually carried the day.

“I don’t want to vote no, because we need something,” said Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake.

Two: The dream of decriminalizing hard drugs is dead.

Dead for now, anyway. (Nothing is forever in politics.) But that was the best chance drug reformers had had in decades to force a total reset of how society confronts drug addiction.

Instead, this result isn’t all that different from what many communities have been trying with mixed results for years. It’s punishment via the criminal justice system, with pathways set up for diversion into treatment. A lot of treatment, hopefully.

That majority Democrats not only re-upped the use of jail to combat drug use, but made the penalty stricter, is either a generational act of moderate leadership, or a complete betrayal of their principles and their liberal base. Depends on your point of view.

“We’re making a terrible mistake,” said state Rep. Lauren Davis, D-Shoreline, who said she got into politics to take a public health approach to addiction.

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The party’s base is opposed to what just happened. The Democrats’ 2022 platform states, in the Priority No. 1 section, “we call for … decriminalization of personal possession and use of most drugs in a manner similar to Oregon Initiative 110 passed by voters in 2020.” The party’s statewide steering committee made decriminalization a legislative priority.

But the Democrats who have to face the voters — the elected officials — are more split. There’s been a backlash to other soft-on-crime approaches, such as defunding the police. That, along with the urgency of the fentanyl crisis, ultimately made elected leaders choose not to follow Oregon.

It’s worth watching whether progressive groups here punish their own side for this decision. Or maybe go straight to voters with an initiative.

“For a Legislature and a governor that claim to prioritize equity, the opportunity to clearly address the undeniable inequities in drug enforcement should have been taken to its fullest potential,” said Columbia Legal Services, a Seattle social justice group. “Yet the Legislature instead falls back to status quo politics, continuing to police and prosecute addiction.”

Three: Hold on, what about Seattle?

When the state passes a law, it doesn’t mean local jurisdictions have to enforce it. Barring a political sea change, the odds seem stacked against Seattle intervening much with people smoking fentanyl on downtown streets.

Seattle and King County weren’t enforcing drug laws much back when drug possession was a felony. When I wrote about King County’s drug court program earlier this year, they told me they hadn’t seen any drug possession cases there in years. (Most defendants were there for property crimes related to drug use.)

On Tuesday, all 12 Democrats in the state House and Senate who voted “no” on this bill were from districts that represent parts of Seattle. Many on the current Seattle City Council don’t support recriminalizing drugs, either, and it isn’t clear what Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell’s stance is. (Last month he told me he would “take a pass” on the question, but was leery about using cops to enforce drug laws due to his experience growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s in Seattle’s Central Area.)

When the city attorney, Ann Davison, suggested a public drug use law, one City Council member, Tammy Morales, tweeted: “Hard pass.”

Bottom line: Expect pushback against this law in Seattle, and for it to be a big election issue this fall. Hopefully there are new treatment resources that can quickly rush in while Seattle continues to dither, because in the last week alone there were 50 opioid overdoses recorded in downtown Seattle.

Four: The great drug debate obviously isn’t over (contradicting what I said up top)

But the statewide politics did just shift on it. We aren’t Oregon. The democratic system, controlled in all sectors by Democrats, debated for two years and veered from following Oregon hard to the left. People can fight that or try to make this work instead — that’s the debate now.