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Washington State Unveils $200 Million Plan To Address Drug War’s Racially Disparate Harms



The Washington State Department of Commerce released a document this week recommending how $200 million should be spent to address racial, economic and social disparities created by the war on drugs.

The 92-page Community Reinvestment Plan was developed by the department, the state Office of Equity and the Harriet Tubman Foundation for Safe Passage, which together worked with community members to advise how the reinvestment money should be spent. The plan, paid for out of the state’s general fund, next returns to Gov. Jay Inslee (D) and the state legislature.

“This plan offers a blueprint for how we can begin to reinvest together in the affected communities and families,” Commerce Director Mike Fong said in a statement released with the plan. “Governor Inslee and the Legislature have established Washington state as a leader in beginning to take steps, centered in community, to mitigate the devastating impacts of historic drug policies and mass incarceration.”

One of the main goals, the report says, was to center the lived experience of those who’ve felt the impacts of the drug war, either through being incarcerated themselves or having “at least one close contact with people who have been incarcerated for drug possession charges.”

“As the saying goes, ‘the people closest to the issues are the ones best situated to produce the solutions,'” said Megan Matthews, director of the Washington Office of Equity. “This project is a critical demonstration of our state’s commitment to do things with people instead of to them and to meaningfully address past harm.”

Of the $200 million in total funding over the next two years, $167 million would be directly distributed by the Commerce Department to support violence prevention, reentry services and economic development, according to the new plan. Another $25 million would go to the Employment Security Department to provide workforce and small business services. And $8 million would go to the Office of Civil Legal Aid to pay for legal representation, vacating criminal records and other legal financial obligations.

By program area, economic development grants would get $138 million in funding, $30 million would go to community-based violence intervention and prevention, $12 million would pay for reentry services, $8 million would go toward civil and criminal legal assistance and the remaining $12 million would fund local advisory teams and technical assistance to impacted individuals and communities.

Some of the 17 identified grant programs are specific to drug policy. A $3 million cannabis business grant program, for example, would support social equity license holders by funding Black, Latino and Indigenous owners to grow their marijuana companies.

But most recommended investments focus on economic and community development more broadly, emphasizing homeownership and work training, for example, or providing trauma-informed financial coaching and business advice.

Community investments include $10 million for existing violence reduction programs, a $10 million community healing program, $5 million to expand youth sports and $5 million to train and certify barbers and beauty shop operators to deliver support services like life coaching, violence prevention and mentorship.

“These resources are not just investments,” said Jesse Miller, founder and CEO for the Harriet Tubman Foundation for Safe Passage, “they’re seeds of hope that will nourish families across the state, fostering growth and creating a brighter future for generations to come.”

In addition to recommendations for how the $200 million in state funds should be spent, the report also provides background information on disparities caused by the drug war. In Washington, “the disparate impact was on Black, Latino and Indigenous neighborhoods and people, perpetuating existing disparities within those populations,” according to a Commerce Department press release announcing the plan.

The department says that over the past 40 years, the number of people convicted of drug-related crimes rose by more than 500 percent. “Mass incarceration separated and continues to separate families,” it notes, “just as criminal records and legal financial obligations exacerbate economic disparities and challenges associated with access to housing, employment, education, health care and other fundamental pillars that create wealth and stability.”

“The Community Reinvestment funds will begin to address these racial, economic and social disparities,” it says.

The impacts were also felt differently in different parts of the state. To that end, the plan would distribute almost two thirds (64 percent) of funds to six counties in the state: King, Pierce, Yakima, Spokane, Snohomish and Clark counties. The remainder, Commerce says, will support programs in other counties across the state.

The $200 million, which was earmarked for community investment through legislation passed last year, is supposed to fund programs through two fiscal years, or through the end of June 2025. But officials said that community voices “have been loud in advocating for funding beyond the current two-year window in order to make a significant long-term difference.”

“These investments will begin to address racial, economic and social disparities within communities across the state,” said Commerce Director Fong, “but continuing these investments beyond the biennium will be necessary to stabilize the programs and broaden their reach, and to measure the long-term success of this project.”

The Commerce Department noted in its press release that some grant programs identified in the plan “are expansions or spinoffs from existing programs meaning implementation will be relatively quick and easy.” Others, such as subsidized lending and financial assistance programs, will need to be designed and implemented in coming months.

Meanwhile, Washington officials have so far released nearly $10 million to help vacate drug possession charges that were invalidated as part of a 2021 state Supreme Court decision that struck down Washington’s felony drug law.

Anyone convicted of drug possession on or before the date of the court decision—February 25, 2021—is eligible for their conviction to be vacated and have costs reimbursed. Lawmakers have earmarked almost $100 million to handle that process—including $47 million to process possession charge vacations and another $51 million to pay legal financial obligation refunds.

The ruling, known as State v. Blake, effectively nullified the state’s drug possession criminalization law. The state has since reenacted prohibition, with statutory language fixes to pass constitutional muster and lower possession penalties compared to the voided previous law.

This past legislative session saw a number of other drug policy reform developments in the state.

Among them, Inslee signed a bill into law to protect workers from facing employment discrimination during the hiring process over their lawful use of marijuana. He also approved a separate measure authorizing interstate cannabis commerce, pending a federal policy change.

Another bill Inslee signed into law this session is meant to promote research into psilocybin and create a pilot program to provide therapeutic access to the psychedelic for mental health treatment. However the governor issued a partial veto of sections that he said “no longer align with the bill’s intent.”

Also in Washington, the state Department of Health recently announced $1.3 million in funding to 11 different community-based organizations to be spent on “youth cannabis and commercial tobacco use prevention.” Revenue for that program came from taxes and fees from legal marijuana.

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Ben Adlin, a senior editor at Marijuana Moment, has been covering cannabis and other drug policy issues professionally since 2011. He was previously a senior news editor at Leafly, an associate editor at the Los Angeles Daily Journal and a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs. He lives in Washington State.


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