The Future of Drug Policy Reform in Washington 

Thursday, December 22, 2022
When the state Legislature convenes on Jan. 9, lawmakers will have the opportunity to address the racially biased practices and devastating consequences of the failed War on Drugs by replacing a system that stigmatizes and criminalizes people with substance use disorders with one that treats drug use with a public health approach. 
In April, the ACLU of Washington joined with community for a discussion about the future of drug policy reform in our state. The Flights & Rights event featured two members of the steering committee for Commit to Change WA, a campaign dedicated to decriminalizing drugs and expanding services for people with substance use disorder through the passage of I-1922.

Unfortunately, the measure did not qualify for the November 2022 ballot, but coalition members and other advocates, including ACLU-WA, remain dedicated to advancing policies that establish a public health response to drug use.
Below are some highlights from the Flights & Rights conversation. Find a link to the full replay of the event here. 
  • Rev. Jan Bolerjack, Steering Committee member, Commit to Change WA and Pastor at Riverton Park United Methodist Church 
  • Don Julian Saucier, Steering Committee member, Commit to Change WA and Peer Recovery Specialist for people with substance use disorders 
  • Mark Cooke, Policy Director, ACLU-WA Campaign for Smart Justice 
  • Moderated by Alison Holcomb, ACLU-WA Director of Political Strategies  
To open the discussion, Holcomb asked, “What is drug policy reform?”  
The definition of drug policy reform, according to Cooke, should begin with acknowledging the harms caused by decades of “utterly failed” drug policies at the national, state and local levels. In 2021, the United States recorded over 100,000 overdose deaths, with more than 2,000 in Washington alone,  Cooke noted: “That’s five a day and every one of those people was a child, or a parent, or a sibling. We really should not lose sight of how terrible a job we’re doing in supporting people who are struggling with substance use disorder.” 
Not only are we failing as a society to prevent the deaths of people with substance use disorder, but we’re compounding that struggle by criminalizing and stigmatizing their medical condition, Cooke said. “Drug policy reform to me is [about] trying to end that system. We want to change those laws and try to reinvest in public health alternatives.” 
In addition, the system has been, “horrifically racist in terms of how it was created and enforced,” said Cooke, pointing to the history of drug prohibition – from opium laws targeting Chinese immigrants during the 1860s to demonizing marijuana from Mexico to the racist criminal legal response in Black neighborhoods to crack cocaine during the 1980s. “There’s always a direct line to racism,” said Cooke. “That has borne out in terms of who has paid the price for the War on Drugs.”  
Don Julian Saucier, a Commit to Change WA Steering Committee member, said his own experience with substance use and the criminal legal system led him to advocate for policies that provide services for people struggling with substance use disorder. Saucier, who was sentenced to 88 months in prison as a first-time drug offender, said he wanted to ask for help with his substance use, but he didn’t know how, and he felt ashamed. 
“People generally use drugs to deal with some sort of trauma,” Saucier said. “You take someone who already has a problem and throw more shame on them and disengage them from the community, that's not helpful. That’s the opposite of help. That’s downright harmful.”  
Saucier added, “Rock bottom doesn't have to be behind a cell where there’s not services for somebody to heal.” 
Commit to Change WA Steering Committee member Rev. Jan Bolerjack explained that she’s seen the harmful impact of the War on Drugs up close in Tukwila. Bolerjack moved to Tukwila 14 years ago from a wealthy east King County community where substance use disorder happened behind closed doors. High rates of poverty and over-policing in Tukwila link people with substance use disorder to the criminal legal system in ways that residents of wealthier communities do not face.  
Bolerjack said she works for drug policy reform in memory of a Tukwila man she knew who died from substance use disorder. She and other members of her church tried to find him treatment for more than five years, but insurance and lack of financial resources always blocked their efforts.  
Saucier and Bolerjack both stressed that a new policy approach should center the root causes of substance use disorder, reduce barriers to accessing services and extend compassion to people who are struggling. 
“There’s so much missing in our support for folks,” Bolerjack said. 
Much of the current criminalization policy approach can be traced to President Richard Nixon labeling drugs “public enemy number one” during a 1971 press conference, Cooke pointed out. Federal and state laws prohibiting drug use and possession proliferated from there, with a decades-long, disproportionate emphasis on enforcing those laws in BIPOC and low-income communities. “I'm always struck,” said Cooke, “If you are a wealthy person who has a home and a stable environment, drugs have been decriminalized for you for a long time.”  
But Washington also has a history of taking the lead on significant drug policy reforms, Cooke said. For example, during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, Tacoma was the first city in the nation to offer a legally sanctioned needle exchange program, with other communities around the state later adopting similar models. Washington was also one of the first states to legalize medical marijuana in 1998 and to decriminalize adult marijuana use in 2012 when voters passed Initiative 502. More recently, in 2021, the state Supreme Court ruled that Washington’s primary drug possession law was unconstitutional. [Editor’s Note: Unfortunately, after the State v. Blake ruling, the Legislature immediately recriminalized drug possession, making it a misdemeanor, while also including provisions that require extending services to people before they are charged with a crime. Lawmakers will have a chance to revisit the new criminal penalties – which expire in July 2023 -- during the upcoming legislative session. [For more on how lawmakers can move forward on drug policy reform and leave behind the failed War on Drugs, see Cooke’s blog post here.] 

When asked about their 10-year vision for drug policy reform in Washington, Cooke, Saucier and Bolerjack emphasized decriminalizing substance use disorder, investing in mental health services and other public health alternatives, and public education to help reduce the stigma around substance use disorder.  
“We need to stop criminalizing all of this [and] not just at the user stage,” Cooke said, explaining that the increased availability of fentanyl in recent years has led to a massive rise in overdose deaths in Washington and around the country. Cooke added, “We can’t talk about the War on Drugs and just focus on users. The time has come for us to have an even bigger conversation about supply issues.”