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.
Virginia Has Sealed 64,000 Marijuana Distribution Charges Since Legalization Took Effect This Summer
“These aren’t just numbers and there are families attached.”
By Ned Oliver, Virginia Mercury
Virginia has sealed records documenting more than 64,000 misdemeanor marijuana distribution charges since the state legalized the drug in July.
The figure came out Thursday during a meeting of the legislature’s Cannabis Oversight Commission.
Officials said the records were scrubbed from the state’s criminal record database, which is used by employers like school boards, state agencies and local governments to screen employees.
The state had already sealed 333,000 records detailing charges of simple possession last year after the state reduced the offense to a civil infraction on par with a traffic offense, said Shawn G. Talmadge, the Deputy Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security.
Lawmakers directed the state to expand that effort when they voted to broadly legalize recreational use of marijuana earlier this year.
The legislature also agreed to a broader expungement reform that will automatically seal other misdemeanor charges, including underage possession of alcohol, use of a fake ID, petit larceny, trespassing and disorderly conduct. Talmadge said those charges will remain in the system until the state finishes updating the software it uses to track criminal records.
“As of right now, the process is proceeding,” he said.
The Virginia Joint Commission on Cannabis Oversight is meeting now. You can find the agenda and links to livestream and to provide public comment at https://t.co/f1wsPn7SV7
— Jennifer McClellan (@JennMcClellanVA) October 14, 2021
Members of the oversight commission also heard from two advocates who urged them to move fast to address people currently imprisoned for marijuana offenses—a category of people the legalization legislation passed this year did not address.
Chelsea Higgs Wise, the leader of the advocacy group Marijuana Justice, and Gracie Burger, with the Last Prisoner Project, said Department of Corrections data suggests there are currently 10 people being held solely on serious marijuana charges.
They said it remains unknown how many more are being held because of marijuana related probation violations.
“These aren’t just numbers and there are families attached,” Burger said.
DEA Proposes Dramatic Increase In Marijuana And Psychedelic Production In 2022, Calling For 6,300 Percent More MDMA Alone
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is proposing a dramatic increase in the legal production of marijuana and psychedelics like psilocybin, LSD, MDMA and DMT to be used in research next year.
In a notice scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Monday, the agency said there’s been a “significant increase in the use of schedule I hallucinogenic controlled substances for research and clinical trial purposes,” and it wants authorized manufacturers to meet that growing demand.
DEA had already massively upped its proposed 2021 quota for cannabis and psilocybin last month, but now it’s calling for significantly larger quantities of research-grade marijuana and a broader array of psychedelics to be manufactured in 2022.
It wants to double the amount of marijuana extracts, psilocybin and psilocyn, quadruple mescaline and quintuple DMT. What especially stands out in the notice is MDMA. The agency is proposing an enormous 6,300 percent boost in the production of that drug—from just 50 grams in 2021 to 3,200 grams in the coming year—as research into its therapeutic potential continues to expand.
LSD would see a 1,150 percent increase, up to 500 grams of the potent psychedelic.
Marijuana itself would get a 60 percent boost under DEA’s proposal, up to 3.2 million grams in 2022 from the 2 million grams last year.
Here’s a visualization of the proposed quota increase from 2021 to 2022 for marijuana and cannabis extracts:
For all other THC, psilocybin, psilocyn and MDMA:
And for other psychedelic substances like LSD, mescaline and DMT:
DEA said in the Federal Register notice that it has been receiving and approving additional applications to “grow, synthesize, extract, and manufacture dosage forms containing specific schedule I hallucinogenic substances for clinical trial purposes” to achieve these ambitious quotas.
“DEA supports regulated research with schedule I controlled substances, as evidenced by increases proposed for 2022 as compared with aggregate production quotas for these substances in 2021,” the agency said, adding that it working “diligently” to process and approve marijuana manufacturers applications in particular, as there’s currently only one farm at the University of Mississippi that’s permitted to cultivate the plant for research.
“Based on the increase in research and clinical trial applications, DEA has proposed increases in 3,4- Methylenedioxyamphetamine (MDA), 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), 5-Methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine, Dimethyltryptamine, Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), Marihuana, Marihuana Extract, Mescaline, Psilocybin, Psilocyn, and All Other Tetrahydrocannabinols to support manufacturing activities related to the increased level of research and clinical trials with these schedule I controlled substances.”
Here are the exact numbers for the proposed 2021 and 2022 quotas:
|All other tetrahydrocannabinol||1,000||2,000|
A 30-day public comment period will be open after the notice is formally published on Monday.
It’s difficult to overstate just how significant the proposed 2022 increases are, but it’s certainly true that scientific and public interest in marijuana and psychedelics has rapidly increased, with early clinical trials signaling that such substances show significant therapeutic potential.
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow told Marijuana Moment in a recent interview that she was encouraged by DEA’s previous proposed increase in drug production quota. She also said that studies demonstrating the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics could be leading more people to experiment with substances like psilocybin.
Advocates and experts remain frustrated that these plants and fungi remain in the strictest federal drug category in the first place, especially considering the existing research that shows their medical value for certain conditions.
A federal appeals court in August dismissed a petition to require the DEA to reevaluate cannabis’s scheduling under the Controlled Substances Act. However, one judge did say in a concurring opinion that the agency may soon be forced to consider a policy change anyway based on a misinterpretation of the therapeutic value of marijuana.
Separately, the Washington State attorney general’s office and lawyers representing cancer patients recently urged a federal appeals panel to push for a DEA policy change to allow people in end-of-life care to access psilocybin under state and federal right-to-try laws.
Image element courtesy of Kristie Gianopulos.
Supreme Court Won’t Hear Case On Legalizing Safe Drug Consumption Sites, But Activists Are Undeterred
The U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) has rejected a request to hear a case on the legality of establishing safe injection sites where people can use illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment.
The justices announced on Tuesday that they decided against taking up the case raised by the nonprofit Safehouse, despite the pleas of attorneys general from 10 states and D.C. who recently filed amici briefs urging the court’s involvement.
Representatives from 14 cities and counties, as well as the mayor of Philadelphia, which is at the center of the current case, also filed briefs in support of the case in recent days.
Safehouse was set to launch a safe consumption site in Philadelphia before being blocked by a legal challenge from the Trump administration. It filed a petition with the nation’s highest court in August to hear the case.
But while the Supreme Court declined to take action—and the Biden administration passed up its voluntary opportunity to weigh in at this stage, which may well have influenced the justices’ decision—activists say the battle will continue at a lower federal court level, where the administration will have to file briefs revealing its position on the issue.
Disappointed but not surprised U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear our case. We’re pursuing our claims in federal court. As that litigation proceeds, Biden administration will have to take a position, which it avoided by waiving its right to respond to our Supreme Court petition.
— Safehouse (@SafehousePhilly) October 13, 2021
“We were disappointed that the government chose not to respond to our petition,” Safehouse Vice President Ronda Goldfein told Filter. “They said, ‘We’re going to waive our right to respond,’ [and] the Supreme Court declined to review our case. Ordinarily that sounds like the end of the road—but in our case we are still pursuing our claims in a different venue.”
That venue will be the the federal district court in Philadelphia, where activists plan to submit multiple arguments related to religious freedom and interstate commerce protections. The Biden administration will be compelled to file a response in that court by November 5.
“If they don’t respond, they lose,” Goldfein said.
A coalition of 80 current and former prosecutors and law enforcement officials—including one who is President Joe Biden’s pick for U.S. attorney of Massachusetts—previously filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to take up Safehouse’s safe injection case.
Fair and Justice Prosecution, the group that coordinated the amicus brief, also organized a tour of Portugal for 20 top prosecutors in 2019 so they could learn about the successful implementation of the country’s drug decriminalization law.
If the Supreme Court were to have taken the case and rule in favor of Safehouse, it could have emboldened advocates and lawmakers across the country to pursue the harm reduction policy.
The governor of Rhode Island signed a bill in July to establish a safe consumption site pilot program where people could test and use currently illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment. It became the first state in the country to legalize the harm reduction centers. It’s not clear whether the Department of Justice will seek to intervene to prevent the opening of such facilities in that state.
Massachusetts lawmakers advanced similar legislation last year, but it was not ultimately enacted.
A similar harm reduction bill in California, sponsored by Sen. Scott Wiener (D), was approved in the state Senate in April, but further action has been delayed until 2022.