A landmark drug decriminalization and treatment bill in Washington State cleared its first legislative hurdle on Monday, with a panel of lawmakers voting to advance the measure just hours before a key deadline.
The House Public Safety Committee voted 7–6 to approve the Pathways to Recovery Act, HB 1499, which would remove penalties for “personal use” amounts of illegal substances and expand outreach and recovery services. The vote is the first time a panel of lawmakers in any U.S. state has voted to remove criminal penalties for possession of all drugs.
“This bill is an assertion that substance use disorder is treatable brain disease from which people recover,” lead sponsor Rep. Lauren Davis (D) said before the vote. “This bill is about reaching each and every person living with substance use disorder, before they ever touch the criminal legal system.”
Voters in neighboring Oregon passed a similar measure last year, expanding treatment and replacing criminal penalties for small amounts of drugs with a $100 fine or referral to treatment. The Washington proposal, by contrast, does not include a fine.
Instead, the bill would drastically expand outreach and recovery services, part of what supporters have called a holistic “continuum of care” to support people with drug use disorders. While Washington has a relatively strong drug treatment system, they say, the state has long overlooked funding proactive outreach and long-term recovery.
“We fund one leg of a three-legged stool,” Davis said at an earlier committee hearing Friday at which lawmakers took testimony on the proposal. “We pay for 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.”
Watch lawmakers and advocates discuss the drug decriminalization bill below:
Lawmakers and advocates introduced the measure earlier this month, after scrambling to finalize the bill’s language and sponsors. Organizers at Treatment First Washington originally planned to put the proposal on last November’s ballot, but the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the signature-gathering effort, and last summer the group announced it would take the proposal to lawmakers instead.
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Despite attracting two-dozen House sponsors (including a lone Republican, Rep. Carolyn Eslick), HB 1499 almost didn’t come to a vote at all this session. Following Friday’s committee hearing, Chairman Rep. Roger Goodman (D) told Marijuana Moment the panel likely wouldn’t move the measure because it was introduced too late in the session. By Sunday, however, it was added to the committee’s schedule.
“This late submission has caused great inconvenience,” Goodman, who voted in favor of the bill, said at Monday’s hearing. “On behalf of the rest of the committee, I do apologize.”
Nor was the bill’s hearing on Monday particularly smooth. The panel initially approved an amendment that would have removed the decriminalization part of the bill, more or less gutting the overall thrust of the legislation. Within minutes, however, Democrats met in a caucus meeting and then moved to reconsider the vote, and Rep. Tina Orwall (D) switched to a “no” vote on the amendment, defeating it.
Ultimately the panel moved forward with an updated version of the bill, which includes a number of changes from the original. Among them, the substitute legislation delays the implementation of decriminalization for six months, from December 1, 2022 to July 1, 2023.
Regulators at the state Health Care Authority (HCA) would have until April 1, 2023 to adopt rules and define how much of each drug constitutes a “personal use amount.” A panel consisting of public defenders and prosecutors, along with people who currently use illegal drugs and others who are in recovery, would advise HCA on that decision.
The substitute bill also explicitly states that decriminalization wouldn’t prevent employers from establishing or enforcing rules against drug use. And it removes an earlier provision that would have allowed people with past drug convictions to have those records expunged without meeting current law requirements for vacating convictions. Individuals could still have their convictions expunged under the bill, but they would not be exempt from existing rules.
Watch the committee debate and vote on the drug decriminalization bill below:
Opponents have argued that by removing the threat of criminal sanctions, HB 1499 goes too far.
“The way the bill is currently written,” Rep. Gina Mosbrucker (R) said Monday, “if you walk up to a police officer and hold a bag of heroin or meth or fentanyl—even in front of their face—you can simply walk away. And that seems wrong on so many different levels.”
Others argued that removing penalties could actually hurt drug consumers, “I have seen incarceration save many, many lives,” said Rep. Brad Klippert (R), a military and law enforcement veteran.
Mosbrucker and Klippert both voted against the bill, along with Reps. Jenny Graham (R), Dan Griffey (R), John Lovick (D) and Jesse Young (R).
Rep. Tarra Simmons (D), who voted in favor of the change, said that in her experience as someone in recovery, criminalization only prevents people from getting help.
“As a person who now has 9 1/2 years in recovery from substance use disorder that included opiates, methamphetamine and marijuana,” she said, “I remember wanting to get help but being afraid because it was a crime.”
Despite hesitancy by some in law enforcement, others said the bill made sense. King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, for one, told lawmakers that prosecuting people for such small amounts of drugs is “simply not an effective strategy” to combat use or overdose deaths.
“This is a gram,” he said, holding up a single packet of Splenda to emphasize the relatively small amounts of hard drugs that would be allowed under the bill. “It’s not an ounce, it’s not a kilo. It’s a tiny, tiny amount consistent with the need to use drugs daily.”
A number of international drug experts also weighed in at last week’s hearing. Ruth Dreifuss, the former president of Switzerland and a member of the United Nations Global Commission on Drug Policy, began her comments by expressing “my deep recognition for the quality of the proposed House bill.”
“The free choice of those who control their consumption and don’t harm other should be respected,” Dreifuss said. “To those who are ill of addiction, access to treatment should be guaranteed.”
Also speaking in favor of the bill was João Augusto Castel-Branco Goulão, the national drug coordinator for Portugal, the first country to decriminalize all drugs.
In response to questions from skeptical lawmakers about how decriminalization had gone in that country, he argued the country has seen “a clear improvement in all of the indicators available.” Overdose deaths have declined, youth drug use has decreased and the estimated number of people with drug use disorders has fallen, he said.
The next step for the bill is the House Appropriations Committee and then, potentially, a full floor vote.
Some other state legislatures are also considering similar reforms. A Kansas lawmaker late last week introduced a measure to replace criminal penalties for simple drug possession with a $100 fine. People caught with drugs other than marijuana would be referred to mandatory treatment, and failure to comply would be a misdemeanor.
In New York, a Senate bill introduced last month would decriminalize low-level possession of any controlled substance and instead levy fines of $50.
Activists across the country have also been pursuing a more targeted decriminalization model to deprioritize enforcement of laws against naturally produced psychedelics, such as psilocybin and ibogaine.
A Republican lawmaker in Iowa introduced a bill last week to remove psilocybin from the list of controlled substances.
In California, a lawmaker said late last year that he planned to file a bill that would decriminalize psychedelics. And activists are hoping to see further legislation to broadly remove criminal penalties for simple drug possession.
In Washington, meanwhile, Goodman, the chair of the committee that cleared the decriminalization bill on Monday, told Marijuana Moment that the state will “keep pushing hard and riding this wave.”
“Washington State will lead the way as we wind down the drug war,” he said.