A landmark drug decriminalization and treatment bill in Washington state overcame its first legislative challenge Monday when a group of lawmakers voted to approve the measure just hours before a key deadline.
The House Public Safety Committee voted 7-6 to approve HB 1499 on recovery routes, which removes penalties for personal use of illegal substances and expands recovery services and coverage. This is the first time a group of lawmakers in a U.S. state has voted to decriminalize the possession of all drugs.
This bill is confirmation that substance use disorders are a treatable brain disease from which people recover, the administration’s sponsor of Rep. said before the vote. Lauren Davis (D). The bill aims to reach all people with substance use disorders before they come into contact with the criminal justice system.
Voters in neighboring Oregon approved a similar measure last year that expands treatment and replaces criminal penalties for small amounts of drugs with a $100 fine or referral to treatment. Washington’s proposal, on the other hand, does not provide for sanctions.
Instead, the bill would radically expand outreach and recovery services – part of what advocates have called a holistic continuum of care for people with substance use disorders. According to them, while Washington has a relatively strong drug treatment system, the state has long failed to fund long-term education and recovery programs.
We’re funding one leg of a three-legged stool, Davis said at an earlier committee hearing on Friday, where lawmakers testified about the proposal. We continue to pay for treatment because insurance covers it, but we are not able to fund the front-line advocacy and behind-the-scenes support that is absolutely fundamental to a sustainable recovery.
See below the drug decriminalization bill discussed by lawmakers and advocates:
Lawmakers and advocates filed this measure earlier this month after fine-tuning the bill’s language and its sponsors. Organizers of Treatment First Washington originally planned to bring the proposal to a vote in November, but the coronavirus pandemic prevented the collection of signatures, and the group announced last summer that it would instead submit the proposal to lawmakers.
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Although it received two dozen supporters in the House (including the only Republican, Congresswoman Carolyn Eslick), HB 1499 barely managed to get a vote in the House. After Friday’s hearing, Chairman Roger Goodman (D) said the panel is unlikely to consider this measure because it was filed too late in the session. However, it was added to the committee’s agenda on Sunday.
This late introduction caused much inconvenience, said Goodman, who voted for the bill during Monday’s hearing. On behalf of the rest of the committee, I apologize.
Monday’s hearing on the bill did not go smoothly either. Originally, the Commission had accepted an amendment which would have deleted the decriminalising part of the law, thereby more or less blurring the general thrust of the legislation. Within minutes, however, Democrats gathered in the caucus and headed for a second vote. Representative Tina Orwall (D) suggested that the amendment not be voted on and rejected it.
The panel ultimately produced an updated version of the bill that included a number of changes from the original. Specifically, the substitute law postpones the introduction of decriminalization by six months, effective 1. December 2022 to 1. July 2023.
The National Health Authority (HCA) has until 1 April 2023 to make rules and determine what part of each medicine is considered personal use. A group of public advocates and prosecutors, as well as people who currently use illegal drugs and others who are in detox, will advise the HCA on the decision.
The alternative bill also specifically states that decriminalization does not prevent employers from adopting or enforcing rules against drug use. It also removes a pre-existing provision that allowed people with prior drug convictions to delete those records without meeting the current exemption requirements of the law. Under the bill, people could still be sentenced, but they would not be exempt from the existing rules.
Watch the committee debate and vote on the bill to decriminalize drugs below:
Opponents believe HB 1499 goes too far by removing the threat of criminal penalties.
People’s Advocate Gina Mosbrucker (right) says if you walk up to a police officer and hold a bag of heroin, methamphetamine or fentanyl in front of him – even to his face – you can walk away. And that seems wrong on so many levels.
Others have argued that the removal of sanctions could actually harm drug users: I’ve seen incarceration save many, many lives, said Brad Clippert, an Army and law enforcement veteran (right).
Mosbrucker and Klippert joined the House members in voting against the bill. Jenny Graham (R), Dan Griffey (R), John Lovick (D) and Jesse Young (R).
MP Tarra Simmons (D), who voted for the amendment, said that in her experience as a recovering person, criminalisation only keeps people from seeking help.
As someone who has been recovering from the use of opiates, methamphetamine and marijuana for nine and a half years now, she said : I remember wanting help, but I was afraid because it was a crime.
Despite the hesitation of some police departments, others have said the bill makes sense. King County Attorney Dan Satterberg, for example, told lawmakers that prosecuting people for such small amounts of drugs is simply not an effective strategy for addressing drug use or overdose deaths.
It’s a gram, he says, waving a packet of Splenda to highlight the relatively small amount of hard drugs that would be allowed under the bill. It’s not an ounce, it’s not a pound. It is a very small amount, equivalent to the need to take medication daily.
Several international drug experts also participated in the hearing last week. Ruth Dreifuss, former President of the Swiss Confederation and member of the UN World Commission on Drug Policy, began her speech by expressing my deep appreciation for the quality of the House of Representatives bill.
The free choice of those who control their consumption and do not harm others should be respected, Dreifuss said. People suffering from addiction should have access to treatment.
João Augusto Castel-Branco Goulão, national drugs coordinator in Portugal, the first country to decriminalise all drugs, also supported the project.
Responding to questions from sceptical lawmakers about the progress of decriminalisation in the country, he said there had been a marked improvement in all available indicators. He said overdose deaths are down, drug use among teens is down and the estimated number of people with substance use disorders is down.
The next phase of the bill will be the House supply committee and then possibly a vote by the entire House.
Similar reforms are being considered in some other states. A Kansas lawmaker filed a measure late last week to replace the penalty for drug possession with a $100 fine. People with drugs other than marijuana are sent to mandatory treatment, and non-compliance is considered a felony.
In New York City, a Senate bill introduced last month would decriminalize small-scale possession of a controlled substance and instead impose fines of $50.
Activists across the country are also pushing for a more targeted decriminalization model to circumvent enforcement of laws against naturally occurring psychedelics like psilocybin and ibogaine.
Last week, a Republican legislator in Iowa introduced a bill to remove psilocybin from the list of controlled substances.
Late last year, a California lawmaker declared his intention to introduce a bill to remove psychedelics from the criminal law. And activists hope that future laws will be passed that will largely decriminalize simple drug possession.
Lawmakers in Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Texas and Virginia are also considering bills on psychedelics and drug policy reform for the 2021 session.
In Washington, Goodman, chairman of the committee that approved the decriminalization bill Monday, said the state will continue to act and ride the wave.
Washington State will be the first to end the war on drugs, he said.
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