Organizers are gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to decriminalize personal-use amounts of illegal drugs.
Organizers are gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to decriminalize "personal-use" amounts of illegal drugs. Sarah Mason / GETTY IMAGES

With a sizable chunk of start-up money from the ACLU, an organization called Treatment First WA aims to end the War on Drugs in Washington by convincing voters to approve Initiative-1715.

The proposal would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs statewide, reducing the penalty to a civil fine. Instead of sending people to jail for holding a little bag of heroin, officers would refer people to treatment services. The initiative would use $125 million in marijuana tax revenues per year from the general fund to expand treatment programs. That money would also pay for officer training and public outreach, plus pave the way for people to vacate past possession and use charges.

If the measure makes the ballot, and if voters approve it, the law would go into effect in December of 2022, at which point a work group organized by the Washington Department of Health would determine what constitutes a "personal-use" amount.

Polling shows surprisingly broad support for the measure across the state, but the pandemic is making signature gathering particularly difficult at the moment. Nevertheless, organizers say they're "determined" to collect enough ink before the July 2 deadline to make the November ballot.

Right now they're mailing petitions with a prepaid return envelope, which you can request right here.

Dr. Molly Carney, a University of Washington researcher who ran Evergreen Treatment Services for six years, said treating addiction and substance abuse as a criminal issue rather than a public health issue "is not working."

Opioid and meth-related deaths have been on the rise across the state for the last several years, and jail does not appear to punish the addiction out of people. One study shows that "about 95% of released state inmates with drug use histories return to drug use" within three years, and that "68% are rearrested, 47% are reconvicted, and 25% are sentenced to prison for a new crime." Another study shows "there is an increased risk of drug-related death during the first 2 weeks after release from prison and that the risk remains elevated up to at least the fourth week."

However, rerouting low-level drug offenders to services, as the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program does, can break the cycle. Compared to a control group, one UW study found that LEAD participants had 60% lower odds of arrest for six months after their first arrest and 39% lower odds of catching a felony case over the next two years.

A diversion program would have worked for Julian Saucier, executive director of Yoga Behind Bars. Saucier said he developed an addiction to drugs in the Chicago club scene and "let it get out of hand." One night he got busted, ended up with federal charges, and served a five-year prison term.

Outside of his relationship with his brother, who was a Seattle Police Officer, Saucier said he'd never engaged with law enforcement before. He thinks the shock of crawling into the backseat of a police car for the first time would have scared him enough to accept a treatment referral.

Saucier likes the proposal because it doesn't force people into treatment, but it does give them "a lifeline, as opposed to barriers for the rest of their life."

Like so many other people with felonies on their records, Saucier said he struggled to find housing and a job when he got out. He'd get interviews, but he wouldn't get hired. Property managers would "happily" take his application fee, but then they'd deny him housing. When he finally did get a job through a friend, he had to live in hotels, spending hours commuting by bus to get to work. Eventually a friend from work hooked him up with a place that would accept a tenant with a criminal background. "I was blessed with supportive family, but these are hurdles people shouldn’t have to deal with," he said.

Julian Saucier, executive director of Yoga Behind Bars.
Julian Saucier, executive director of Yoga Behind Bars. Courtesy of Treatment First WA

Saucier said some people might only be ready to pay the civil fine for getting caught with drugs, but he thinks a lot of his friends in the scene would have taken the treatment offer at the time, too. "A lot of people were asking for help, but people didn’t know how to help each other," he said.

Auburn City Councilmember Chris Stearns, who said he's worked with people in recovery in his capacity as president of the Board of Directors of the Seattle Indian Health Board, highlighted the destabilizing impact of the criminal justice system on people of color and indigenous people, who are overrepresented and particularly underserved within that system.

For starters, cops arrest them for drug crimes at high rates relative to their population in Washington. Though Black people make up 4.3% of the state's population, they account for 10.8% of its drug arrests. Native Americans make up 1.9% of the state, but they account for 3.3% of drug arrests. And all this "despite the fact that multiple data sources suggest that whites are the majority of sellers and users of serious drugs" in Seattle, at least. Furthermore, black people are far more likely than their white counterparts to be sentenced to prison for committing a drug crime, and it's twice as hard for black people to reenter the job market after they've served their time.

Though it may seem fanciful to start paying well north of $100 million per year to expand drug treatment programs as the state looks into the abyss of a historically large budget shortfall, Dr. Carney thinks we can't afford not to. "Putting someone in treatment is one-tenth of the cost of putting someone in jail. You can do the math," she said.

And though the pandemic has wiped out many small businesses, Carney pointed out that the cannabis industry, which is where the money from the law would come from, "to some degree is not an industry that has been hit as hard as others, so there's some money still coming in."

Capitol Hill Seattle Blog reports that "pot has been a growth industry during the pandemic."

"Now is the time," Carney added. "With COVID we are seeing more people seeking out treatment...and people are having difficulty accessing it. We’re also seeing higher overdose rates."

Though law enforcement associations will probably end up forming part of the opposition, Carney argues the proposal should appeal to them. "I think it will help minimize the siloing going on between law enforcement and treatment providers. It put us on the same side. They won't see the same people over and over again, and they can stay focused on crimes that are more significant to society."