by Jude Ahmed
Gov. Jay Inslee called a special session of the Legislature to begin on May 16. Among other things, the special session addressed the expiration of a current law that makes drug possession a misdemeanor. Ultimately, the State passed Senate Bill 5536, which raises the penalty for drug possession to a gross misdemeanor and newly criminalizes public use as a gross misdemeanor.
Both Democrats and Republicans called for an escalation of criminal penalties — a misleading response to public substance use that the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle (ULMS) staunchly opposes. Lawmakers are hiding behind a false moral imperative to justify passing laws for political expediency.
Let’s be honest: What “looks” good for the reelection prospects of party leaders in parts of Washington where a tough-on-crime stance is rewarded is to wipe away a public health crisis from the public eye.
Our current substance use disorder crisis is the legacy of the War on Drugs, a purely racist policy to combat illegal drug use by greatly increasing penalties, enforcement, and incarceration for offenders — a set of policies we now have decades of evidence to prove has failed to reduce harmful drugs and substance abuse. It was also specifically intended to disrupt and criminalize Black communities and create conditions of poverty, houselessness, disenfranchisement, and trauma that contribute to — you guessed it — today’s public health crisis!
Meanwhile, our state does not have the necessary infrastructure to provide low-barrier treatment, supportive housing, and pathways to health for those we see visibly using illegal substances in public. Without such infrastructure, a criminal-first approach to public substance use and substance use disorder is antithetical to the goals of relieving the impacts of substance use disorder on the Washington community.
While SB 5536 included $62.9 million to develop such infrastructure, it will be a little too late for those immediately impacted by the decision to criminalize them first. The bill also allows cities and counties to make their own rules to regulate entities that provide harm-reduction services. Advocates fear this will be a major barrier to establishing treatment programs and derail crucial intervention strategies to reduce the health risks of using drugs and proactive steps toward treatment.
Residents are right to be concerned about the conditions of those using drugs in public spaces, and the disruption it may cause to their daily activities. But years of harm due to failed War on Drugs policies cannot be reversed overnight. Rather, it will require growing pains that all Washington residents must accept.
To see a long-term solution to their concerns of visible drug use, it is imperative we address public substance use as a symptom of poverty and economic disenfranchisement. Community members excluded from housing turn to street drugs to alleviate their immediate suffering from exposure to the elements, the lack of safety and autonomy, personal trauma, and societal exclusion.
ULMS is at the forefront of providing wraparound services to Black communities in King County. We witness daily how the War on Drugs and the criminalization of Black communities disrupts families and their ability to achieve their basic needs due to the stigma, trauma, and other lifelong consequences interacting with the criminal legal system. A criminal charge emboldens cycles of poverty to persist because they are designed to do so.
We know that when a criminal charge is involved for Black communities, there is no way to “balance legal consequences and treatment options” as lawmakers claim. Who is this balance for? Those with the means to afford lawyers, personalized treatment, and the privacy to recover? Certainly, there is no balance when we are solely punishing people simply for not having a home to do their drugs in. There is no balance when we are relying on a system that targets and oppresses Black and Brown bodies for doing the exact same things their white neighbors do.
Most Washingtonians support a public health approach. Only in 2021 did the State consider the pressing need to fund infrastructure to address substance use disorder and behavioral health crises in Washington State. The Legislature created the Substance Use Recovery Services Advisory Committee (SURSAC) to develop such a plan, which lawmakers have conveniently chosen to ignore. In December 2022, SURSAC released a report with 16 recommendations to develop a substance use recovery plan, centering their recommendations around a policy of drug decriminalization. For example, widespread behavioral health resources, low-barrier treatment facilities, healthy engagement hubs, zoning allowances for behavioral health and substance use disorder treatments, and a continuum of housing options must be available first.
Despite this pre-written roadmap to success, it is disappointing that lawmakers seem perfectly fine with choosing a treacherous road toward failure, which we have already gone down before.
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📸 Featured image of the Washington State Capitol building is attributed to SounderBruce (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0 license).
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