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News / Health / Health Wire

New study suggests looser WA drug laws do not mean more overdose deaths

By Claire Withycombe, The Seattle Times
Published: September 28, 2023, 7:38am

OLYMPIA — As drug overdoses continue to claim lives and policymakers at all levels try to address the problem, new research examining Washington and Oregon suggests there isn’t a link between decriminalizing drug possession and a rise in fatal overdoses.

The research, a collaboration between the Center for Opioid Epidemiology and Policy at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, the Network for Public Health Law and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry on Wednesday.

“Our analysis suggests that state decriminalization policies do not lead to increases in overdose deaths,” said Corey Davis, assistant clinical professor with the Center for Opioid Epidemiology and Policy in the Department of Population Health at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and the study’s senior investigator, in a statement.

The findings emerge in a year where policy debates flared in Washington over how state law should treat drug possession, culminating in the dramatic April failure of an attempt to rewrite Washington’s law on the last day of the legislative session. State lawmakers eventually met in a special session in mid-May to raise penalties for drug possession after a two-year experiment with a lighter touch.

In 2021, the Washington Supreme Court tossed out the state’s felony drug possession law as unconstitutional. Simple drug possession was in effect decriminalized until legislators put a temporary law into place classifying possession as a misdemeanor. And even when that new law was put into place, police had to refer a person to treatment resources twice before arresting them. (That was changed this year, and the new law allows police to arrest people on the first encounter for drug possession).

In Oregon, drug possession was decriminalized in February 2021 after voters passed a ballot measure the previous November. Possession of small amounts of drugs went from a crime to a non-criminal violation with a maximum fine of $100, waived if the person went through a health assessment within 45 days of getting a citation.

The new research used statistical modeling to compare fatal overdose rates in each state in the year after the policy changes were put into place to what those rates might have looked like had those policies not been implemented.

Because there’s no way to know how things would have played out had neither state passed such policies, researchers created synthetic versions of each state using data from certain other states that did not implement decriminalization policies, said Spruha Joshi, a co-lead author of the study and an assistant professor in the department of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. The group of 18 states used to create a synthetic version of Washington had similar rates of overdose to Washington before decriminalization, and the same was true for the 13 states used to simulate Oregon.

While fatal overdose rates are increasing across the country, Joshi said, researchers did not see a statistically significant increase in the overdose death rate in either state in the first year compared to what might have been observed if the legal status of drugs had not changed. In each state, the increase amounted to a fraction of a fatal overdose per 100,000 population.

Joshi acknowledged that one year provided limited data, but that it was important to look at the first year, as there was potential for the policies to have immediate impact. She also said it was “extremely crucial” to continue to follow up as more data become available.

The CDC provided funding for the study.