Oregon Decriminalizes Hard Drug Possession

Photo credit ZehnKatzen at English Wikipedia

Last November, Oregon’s Measure 110 passed with over 58% of the vote. It was a historic act that decriminalized the possession of small quantities of drugs like cocaine and opioids. The popularity of Measure 110 led to the introduction of the similar Washington State House Bill 1499, known as the Pathway to Recovery Act. Under that proposal, drug possession would be downgraded to a civil infraction. Even that penalty would be dropped as long as a person caught with drugs attended a session offering them substance abuse treatment options. The specific quantity of drugs to be decriminalized would be determined by a panel of law enforcement personnel and public health experts. Additionally, state funding for substance abuse treatment would be increased by $125 million, or about 30%.

Drug possession decriminalization seems to be the latest step of the national souring on the war on drugs of the late 20th century, when stricter drug laws led to the imprisonment of millions of people, particularly poor African Americans. The repeal of these policies arguably began with the legalization of medical marijuana in a number of states, including Washington, in the late 1990s. These state level policies have always been at odds with federal law, which still considers cannabis a schedule 1 drug, more strictly controlled than cocaine or fentanyl. So far the only progress on ending the war on drugs federally has been a loosening of sentencing guidelines passed in 2018. More recently, states like Washington and Colorado have also legalized recreational marijuana. This year, in addition to the push to decriminalize other drugs, House Bill 1019 would legalize home grows of up to 6 plants per person, or 15 per household, bringing Washington’s marijuana laws more in line with other states whose original recreational use laws allow home cultivation from the beginning.

In a press conference introducing the bill on Feb. 4, Representative Lauren Davis(D-Shoreline) explained how her personal experience underscored the importance of proper drug treatment. “I know hundreds and hundreds of people in recovery, and count many of them as my close friends.” Recounting how she helped a relapsing friend, she said, “When the breath would leave his body in the midst of an overdose, I would violently shake him awake. … His suffering was deep and profound. His suffering was so many things, but it shouldn’t have been illegal. He deserved help, not handcuffs.”

Later on, she emphasized the connection between the bill’s decriminalization and addiction treatment components, saying, “Recovery is predicated on hope. It is born of connection. People recover not when we cast them out, but when we bring them in. … The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is connection.”

The role of the additional funding in the bill is to complete the kinds of substance abuse services provided in the state. According to Davis, “The substance use disorder continuum of care has three parts: outreach, treatment, and recovery support services. … We fund one leg of a three legged stool. We fund treatment over and over, because insurance covers it, but we fail to fund the outreach on the front end, and the recovery support services on the back end that are absolutely foundational to fostering sustained recovery. The Pathway to Recovery Act gets us there.” The press conference also included statements from former victims of substance abuse, whose recovery was inhibited by their criminal convictions.

“The impact of using drugs did not last nearly as long as the impact of being incarcerated. … Unfortunately, along with all the barriers that go along with being incarcerated, I had a hard time finding a job in the first place, … but I also had a problem with housing. I ended up having to live in a hotel for almost a year,” said Julian Saucier, who spoke on behalf of Treatment First Washington, a non-profit dedicated to more humane drug policy in the state.

Asked later in the Q&A about the funding for this treatment, Davis favored a combination of sources, including marijuana taxes, revenue from the general fund, and potential payouts from the companies responsible for the national opioid epidemic. However, none of these revenue streams are specified in the house bill. Representative Kirsten Harris-Talley(D-Seattle), another primary sponsor, added that HB 1499 could also reduce costs related to the policing, trials, and prison time required by the state’s current drug laws.

So far, the proposal has received almost no outspoken opposition, and the endorsement of numerous groups from the ACLU to King County Recovery Coalition and Treatment First Washington, which are dedicated to more humane drug laws and addiction support. The Democratic sponsors of the house bill are joined by Representative Carolyn Eslick (North Cascades). Both of these are good indications that the bill may not have trouble clearing even the 60% threshold in the legislature set for bills that increase the state’s deficit.