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Push To Decriminalize Drugs In Washington State Survives Early Challenge

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Advocates behind a ballot-box push to decriminalize drugs and expand treatment and recovery services in Washington State have survived a court challenge to the second iteration of their voter initiative planned for November.

The revised proposal, Initiative 1922, is almost identical to the group’s decriminalization ballot measure filed earlier this year, I-1870, but includes updates to reflect the legislature’s passage of two new state laws. One law replaces references to “marijuana” in state code with the term “cannabis,” while the other expands the state’s cannabis social equity program.

The group behind the decriminalization effort, Commit to Change WA, announced in an email to supporters last week that Judge Allyson Zipp, of the Thurston County Superior Court, had on Thursday rejected a challenge to I-1922’s ballot title approved in March by the office of Attorney General Bob Ferguson (D). Zipp was appointed to the bench by Gov. Jay Inslee (D) last year after serving in the AG’s office since 2014.

“We are excited to announce that this morning, the challenge was denied and Judge Zipp ruled in favor of our campaign!” proponents said in the email. “Here is what Washington State voters will see on their ballots this fall when we submit a qualifying number of signatures in July:”

The ballot title of I-1922 is the same as that of the earlier proposal and reads as follows:

Initiative Measure No. 1922 concerns drug use treatment and penalties, and related funding.

This measure would fund substance use disorder prevention, outreach, recovery, training, study, and public education; decriminalize drug possession but allow seizure and forfeiture; authorize vacation of certain drug-related convictions; and amend related laws.

Should this measure be enacted into law?

Commit to Change WA, an ACLU-sponsored coalition of dozens of individuals and local groups formerly organized under the name Treatment First WA, has been working for years to change Washington’s approach to drug use disorders, attempting to move away from criminalizing drug use and instead focus on harm reduction and treatment.

Most Americans support eliminating criminal penalties for drugs, surveys suggest. A poll released last week by the progressive groups Data for Progress and the People’s Action Institute, for example, found that a strong majority of voters, including most Republicans, favor decriminalization.

Seven in ten Americans said that they’re in favor of ending the criminalization of low-level drug possession and replacing the threat of prosecution with choice of paying a fine or being screened for treatment, the survey found, compared to 25 percent who oppose the reform.

Washington voters are generally supportive of decriminalization, according to a statewide poll last year commissioned by reform advocates. Nearly three in four voters (73 percent) said the state’s approach to problematic drug use has been a failure. Just nine percent called it a success.

If I-1922 makes it to the ballot and a majority of voters approve, it would eliminate the state’s existing penalties around possession and use of all drugs. Authorities could still seize illegal substances, but law enforcement would then have to refer individuals to outreach services, where people could access treatment and be connected with other support programs.

The proposal would also expunge past convictions for drug possession and use, removing blemishes from criminal records that can prevent people from finding jobs, securing housing and going to school.

Millions of dollars in state funds, including a major portion of cannabis tax revenue, would also go to expand outreach, treatment and long-term recovery services to support people with substance use disorder.

Proponents have worked for years to draw attention to what they say is a need for the state to step up outreach and long-term recovery services to treat people with substance use disorders. While Washington funds treatment services better than many other states, they say, outreach and long-term recovery are lacking, meaning many people who need help are unaware of available resources or can’t find sustained support after leaving treatment programs.

In 2020, voters in neighboring Oregon passed a similar ballot measure to decriminalize drugs and fund access to treatment and harm reduction services.

Opponents of the prospective Washington state initiative missed their window to challenge the ballot title of the first version of the measure, I-1870, which Commit to Change’s board chair, Peter Danelo, filed with the state in mid-January. When the group submitted a second version of the would-be initiative almost two months later, however, one critic jumped on the opportunity.

Though Commit to Change’s email to supporters last week did not identify the party who challenged the ballot title, it described the person as “someone with an extensive history of [Washington State Public Disclosure Commission] complaints and litigation against progressive organizations and causes.”

The challenger appears to be Glen Morgan, a conservative activist who has spent years filing state complaints predominantly against Democratic and other left-leaning causes. On April 8, Morgan posted a video to YouTube titled, “Why I am challenging Washington AG Bob Ferguson’s ACLU hard drug legalization ballot measure.”

In the video, Morgan said he was challenging the title because he felt it was the result of a corrupt process in which Ferguson “put his thumb on the scale” in favor of the ACLU, which Morgan says in the video “used to care about civil rights” and is now “just focused on esoteric, left-wing causes, and one of those causes, apparently, is this initiative, 1922.“

Morgan says in the video that I-1922’s ballot title sounds like “butterflies and sunshine,“ and he claims to support broader access to treatment for people with drug use disorders, saying that he believes “the most important thing you can do is get them off that substance which is destroying their lives.“ But he implies that police need to be able to arrest and charge people criminally to incentivize drug users to enter treatment, pointing to what he describes as an “out of control“ drug situation in Seattle.

Morgan instead proposes that the ballot title say the would-be initiative concerns “legalizing highly addictive narcotics, freeing convicted criminals, and suffering the consequences,“ opining that it’s “a pretty effective description, I think, of what Seattle’s become.“ His alternative description for the initiative would also identify by name nine specific drugs that would be decriminalized, though the reform itself would apply to all drugs.

Morgan claims repeatedly in the video that I-1922 would “legalize“ drugs, which is at the very least misleading. While the possession of drugs would not be subject to criminal penalties, law enforcement could seize any illicit drugs they encounter, and drug sales and trafficking would remain illegal. Rather than charge people caught with drugs, law enforcement would refer them to treatment and other support services.

A separate prospective ballot measure filed in Washington, which Morgan does not discuss in his video, aims to legalize psilocybin, the main active component of psychedelic mushrooms, for use by adults 21 and over in settings with trained facilitators. That proposal, Initiative 1886, is backed by a different group, the political action committee ADAPT-WA, and is similar to a bill introduced in the legislature earlier this year. So far, however, the psilocybin initiative effort has raised far less financial support than the decrim proposal—about $10,000 in campaign funds, according to state records, compared to more than $1 million raised by Commit to Change.

With the challenge out of the way, Commit to Change WA expressed confidence it can gather the necessary 324,516 valid voter signatures by the state deadline of July 8 to qualify I-1922 for November’s ballot. The group has posted job listings for staff at six offices across the state, advertising wages of $21-$23 per hour. An online kickoff session for volunteer signature gatherers is scheduled for Wednesday evening.

The group has also recently stepped up advertising on social media, running short clips of video testimonials from various supporters, including King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg (D); Keith Blocker (D), a Tacoma city council member and former deputy mayor; health professionals; religious leaders and community members.

Commit to Change has tried repeatedly in recent years to shift Washington’s approach to drug use from a crime-control paradigm to a public-health model. In 2020, when it was known as Treatment First WA, the group attempted to qualify a separate decriminalization and treatment measure for that year’s state ballot. But the outbreak of COVID-19 interrupted the signature gathering effort and organizers shifted their focus to the legislature.

After months of delay, state lawmakers last session introduced House Bill 1499, which included many of the group’s suggestions. But the bill failed to advance out of committee before a legislative deadline.

Shortly thereafter, the state Supreme Court overturned Washington’s felony law against drug possession completely, sending lawmakers scrambling to replace the law with little time left in the legislative session. Ultimately they approved a modest reform, reducing the state’s felony charge for drug possession to a misdemeanor and earmarking more money for treatment. But the law’s criminal penalties will expire in 2023, an effort to encourage lawmakers to revisit the policy.

The law, which took effect last May, was widely seen by advocates as a half-step toward meaningful reform. Many called on lawmakers to further invest in outreach and recovery and urged further dismantling of the criminal drug war.

Washington State lawmakers also briefly considered a bill this session that would have legalized what the legislation called “supported psilocybin experiences” for adults 21 and older. That proposal, however, failed to pass out of committee by a deadline earlier this month.

On the local level, Seattle recently became the largest U.S. city to decriminalize psychedelics following a City Council resolution in October.

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