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 to support people with substance use disorders. Although Washington has a relatively strong drug treatment system, the state has long failed to fund long-term education and recovery programs, they say.
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 establish rules and determine what portion of each drug 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 explicitly states that decriminalization does not prevent employers from enacting 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.
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