Category: Drugs

Council Member Wants to Know: Why Isn’t Harm Reduction Abstinence-Based?

By Erica C. Barnett

City Councilmember Sara Nelson, a vocal advocate for abstinence-based treatment for addiction, argued publicly yesterday with advocates for harm reduction over their approach, which emphasizes keeping people who use drugs alive and helping them address underlying conditions, such as homelessness and health care issues, without judgment or pressure to quit using drugs. Why, Nelson wanted to know, were these organizations focused on reducing harm from drug user rather than “encouraging” them to understand that total abstinence should be their goal?

“What [is] Public Health… doing to move beyond the harm reduction phase and how much money, if any, do you spend on agencies or for treatment that is geared toward abstinence?” Nelson asked. “And as a corollary of that, I guess the more basic question is, does Public Health agree that it has a responsibility to change behavior beyond meeting people where they’re at? Do you feel as thought’s important to help people change their use patterns in ways that they can go into abstinence-based recovery?”

Nelson’s (rhetorical?) questions came during a presentation by three longtime service providers—REACH, the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance, and the Hepatitis Education Project, along with King County Public Health—about how they have used funding from a small grant aimed specifically at reducing harm related to drug use. For years, the city council has also allocated funds for this purpose but the mayor’s office has refused to spend it.

“We’ve got ‘meeting people where they’re at’ covered, I think, when we’re looking at the treatment services that are provided right now,” Nelson said.

The county, strategic advisor and drug policy specialist Brad Finegood assured Nelson, spends “hundreds of millions of dollars” on abstinence-only services; the point of also funding harm reduction, he said, is to “keep people alive” and give them entry points for services amid an overdose epidemic that claimed more than 700 lives in King County last year. Those services, the direct service providers explained, include handing out the overdose prevention drug naloxone, connecting people to health care, offering medication-assisted treatment, and handing out supplies for safer use, including pipes for smoking drugs rather than injecting them.

Nelson (like many local right-wing commentators) zeroed in on safe smoking supplies, suggesting that providers should measure their success by tracking how many people who take pipes end up in treatment.

“I know it can be controversial,” Hepatitis Education Project program director Amber Tejada responded, but “one of the keys that I see is we want to facilitate the autonomy of people that use drugs. There are folks that don’t want to stop using drugs. There are folks for whom abstinence is not how they measure success in life. … Our mission, what we have been able to do really successfully with this program, is to show that people can use drugs safely, and we can help folks get access to resources if that is something they are interested in.”

Last week, Nelson joined her colleague Alex Pedersen and City Attorney Ann Davison to propose new legislation that would enable the city attorney, rather than the King County Prosecutor, to begin prosecuting people for simple drug possession and public drug use. In 2018, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterburg stopped pursuing charges against people for possession of small amounts of drugs while expanding programs like LEAD that work to provide case management and service connections to people who use drugs.

The legislation, if adopted, would represent a profound change to the city’s approach to drug use and a return to war-on-drugs policies that the region has largely abandoned in favor of more compassionate and evidence-based approaches.

Last year, Nelson inserted language into the 2023-2024 budget to fund “facilities” for abstinence-based residential or intensive outpatient treatment using the city’s portion of a state settlement with opioid manufacturers. However, the language of Nelson’s statement of legislative intent leaves wiggle room for other evidence-based types of treatment, such as medication-assisted treatment or contingency management, as a presentation from council central staff at yesterday’s meeting also made clear.

Yesterday, Nelson expressed her frustration that the “private provider community,” which has “more availability for people who have insurance or can pay out-of-pocket,” has not been directly involved in the group that will make recommendations on what kind of treatment to fund with the money she proposed setting aside.

The point of her budget amendment, Nelson said, was “to establish a pilot program that would allow the city to directly contract with treatment facilities, private or public, in order to [help] people who are at the phase of really wanting to go into rehab, get into rehab, especially if they don’t have medication” as an option, as opioid users do.

“We’ve got ‘meeting people where they’re at’ covered, I think, when we’re looking at the treatment services that are provided right now,” Nelson said.

Finally Addressing Blake Decision, Legislature Passes Punitive Drug Possession Bill

by Andrew Engelson

On Tuesday, during the special legislative session called by Gov. Jay Inslee, and after hours of emotional testimony, the legislature passed a new drug possession bill.

The legislation was a response to the state supreme court’s 2021 Blake ruling, a landmark decision that invalidated the state law which historically defined drug possession as a felony. Legislators, set on addressing the court’s decision, failed to pass a bill during the regular session. Yesterday, however, Democrats passed their compromise, which focuses on criminal penalties and coercive treatment over a harm reduction-centered approach. The bill was actually less punitive than a previous version that failed to pass, but is still centered on the threat of jail time for drug users.

The vote was 43 to 6 in the Senate, with Democratic senators Bob Hasegawa (D-11, Seattle), Jamie Pedersen (D-43, Seattle), and Rebecca Saldaña (D-37, Seattle) and three Republican senators voting no. The House passed the bill 83 to 13 and sent it to Inslee, who signed it the same afternoon. The House “nay” votes included several Republicans and nine Democrats, all from Seattle or Shoreline: Reps. Emily Alvarado, Frank Chopp, Lauren Davis, Nicole Macri, Gerry Pollet, Cindy Ryu, Sharon Tomiko Santos, Darya Farivar, and Chipalo Street.

“Is this bill perfect? Absolutely not,” the bill’s original sponsor, Sen. June Robinson (D-38, Everett), said before the vote, adding that she believed the compromises were necessary to pass uniform, statewide rules for drug use and possession.

“This legislation offers a balance between accountability and compassion,” said Rep. Peter Abbarno, (R-20, Centralia) who did not vote for a previous version in the House but supported Tuesday’s bill.

Rep. Lauren Davis (D-32, Shoreline), who voted “no,” called the bill ““bad drug policy” on the house floor before the vote. “Harm reduction programs meet people where they are, they don’t leave people where they are. No one can recover if they’re dead.”

In an attempt to win support from left-leaning reformers, the bill does tone down punishment. The bill defines drug possession – and a new offense of public drug use – as gross misdemeanors, but rather than the standard maximum of 364 days in jail, it limits the maximum sentence that can be imposed for each charge to 180 days for the first two convictions, and 364 days for the third or additional convictions. Fines for each instance are limited to $1,000. The bill also encourages local authorities to offer pre-arrest referral services such as LEAD and the state’s Recovery Navigator Program, and also encourages and describes a process for prosecutors to employ post-conviction diversion programs.

“I personally would like to get to a place where we can decriminalize drugs. But I’m also pragmatic and I don’t just represent myself, I represent a district.” —Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-23, Bermerton), who voted “yes.” 

But ultimately, it defers to local prosecutors to decide whether to press criminal charges for drug possession.

“The prosecutors really insisted that they be the gatekeepers and that they be the party that consents to the diversion,” said Rep Roger Goodman, (D-45, Kirkland) who chairs the house Safety, Justice, and Reentry committee and who was a key player in the negotiations that led to the current bill.

Goodman, who in his career as an attorney has worked to shift drug policy from a criminal justice issue to a public health issue, said, “As the chair of the committee, my role was to manage this process, and move through a piece of legislation that’s politically tenable. In doing so, I have permanently tarnished my drug policy reform credentials. But this is only a step in the continued evolution of our drug policy.”

“I’m grateful for the negotiators from all four caucuses for reducing the amount of incarceration,” said Rep. Tarra Simmons, (D-23, Bremerton) in a floor speech. Simmons, who once served time in prison for a drug possession conviction, voted no on the previous version of the bill because she thought its penalties were too harsh, but reluctantly supported today’s version. “I personally would like to get to a place where we can decriminalize drugs,” Simmons said, “But I’m also pragmatic and I don’t just represent myself, I represent a district.”

The state budget, which Inslee also signed Tuesday afternoon, includes nearly $1 billion for behavioral health services, treatment services, supportive housing, and harm reduction for people with substance use disorders. Notably, that operating budget also includes $300,000 to create a “work group” tasked with studying how the state might create a safe supply system that would provide drug users with medical-grade sources of controlled substances such as opioids and stimulants.

A new work group will evaluate “potential models for safe supply services and make recommendations on inclusion of a safe supply framework in the Washington state substance use recovery services plan to provide a regulated, tested supply of controlled substances to individuals at risk of drug overdose

Creating a safe supply work group was one of the few recommendations from the state’s Substance Use Recovery Services Advisory Committee (SURSAC) report issued late last year that survived the current legislative session.

Like SURSAC, the safe supply work group will include representatives from public health agencies, elected officials, prosecutors, law enforcement agencies, harm reduction organizations, housing and treatment service providers, and active and former drug users.

The group will be tasked with evaluating “potential models for safe supply services and make recommendations on inclusion of a safe supply framework in the Washington state substance use recovery services plan to provide a regulated, tested supply of controlled substances to individuals at risk of drug overdose.” The group must present a final report to the legislature by December 2024.

“In order to help people be in recovery, you have to make sure they’re alive,” said Sen. Manka Dhingra, (D-45, Redmond), who chairs the Law and Justice committee and included the work group in an earlier version of the drug possession bill. “I think it’s important to have those conversations about how we can keep people alive so we can help them recover. This work group is going to help us with that discussion.”

Caleb Banta-Green, a research professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, says safe supply isn’t a radical notion if you’re trying to prevent overdose deaths, of which there have already been 524 in King County this year.

“We have a fundamentally unsafe supply, to put it very simply. That is obviously true of fentanyl,” Banta Green said, noting that the state currently has a safe supply system for alcohol, cannabis, and treatments for opioid addiction. “We’ve had methadone for 50 years and buprenorphine for 20 years. And those are forms of safe supply.”

The drug possession/public use bill that passed Tuesday was much less centered around harm reduction. To attract Republican votes, the bill included a provision that allows local jurisdictions to outlaw or restrict harm reduction services. It does, however, decriminalize drug paraphernalia such as syringes and smoking supplies statewide, when used in harm reduction efforts.

“There’s no evidence that a criminal charge is going to help. And there’s lots of evidence that criminal charges and incarceration all have negative consequences, both in the short term and the long term.  I’m saddened.” —Seattle Rep. Nicole Macri, who voted “No.”

The bill also allows those convicted of either possession or public use to vacate their convictions, but only if they enter treatment for substance use disorder and can show six months of “substantial compliance” with those treatment programs. In addition, prosecutors cannot press charges for both possession and use for the same instance, preventing “stacking” of charges for one incident.

Another concession that House Republicans asked for and got was a provision requiring the state let local media know when a methadone clinic or other opioid treatment facility is opening. Such notices can often inflame public opinion: late last year, a new opioid treatment center in Lynnwood faced furious opposition from local residents before it opened in January.

The bill that passed today replaces a temporary bill passed in 2021 that had set possession at a simple misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail. The temporary law was prompted by the Washington State v. Blake ruling, which tossed out the former statute which defined possession as a felony over a fairly narrow question of “knowing” possession. That temporary law was set to expire in July, thus forcing the legislature to take action this session.

“I wish there were no criminal charges,” Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle), who voted against the final version of the bill, told PubliCola, “There’s no evidence that a criminal charge is going to help. And there’s lots of evidence that criminal charges and incarceration all have negative consequences, both in the short term and the long term. And so, I’m saddened.”

The drug bill also includes $62.9 million ($19.6 million more than the previous version of the bill) in spending on an array of services and programs including housing, recovery and treatment services, diversion programs, new mobile methadone clinics, creating pilot “health hubs” designed to lower barriers to treatment and services, and funding to boost the number of public defenders.

Alison Holcomb, political director for the ACLU of Washington, which has been supportive of decriminalization and investigating a safe supply system, says her organization is disappointed in Democrats—who control both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office—for failing to end the war on drugs in Washington state.

“It’s fairly heartbreaking that legislators who negotiated this bill prioritized partisan compromise over what modern science tells us can save lives,” Holcomb said. “We’re continuing the same strategy of holding punishment over people’s heads as a motivator to coerce them into treatment that is of a finite length of time. And both the coercive feature of that approach and the notion that treatment is something that we can get done in 28 days, six months, or even a year, contravenes modern science.”

Holcomb pointed out that a fiscal note prepared for a previous version of the drug possession bill that set drug possession as a gross misdemeanor estimated that 12,000 new cases will be filed each year in district and municipal courts across the state because of the bill.

Rep. Goodman, who described the negotiating process over the final bill as collegial but akin to being “subjected to a series of small surgeries,” said he’s hopeful this won’t be the last time the legislature reworks its approach to drug use. “The conversation on the failure of the war on drugs will continue to progress,” he said. “I think we’ll be demonstrating through these policies that harm reduction works. So I’m not too disappointed. But I’m not living in a fantasy world.”

In Seattle on Tuesday, council members Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen, alongside city attorney Ann Davison, announced they would introduce a new version of their legislation to criminalize public drug use that will put that proposal in line with the state’s new drug possession and public use laws.

In April, the three proposed a new ban on public drug use at the city level in response to the legislature’s failure to pass a Blake-related drug bill. In a press release, Nelson said, “Now that Olympia has appropriated resources for treatment and adopted a fix for Blake, we’re bringing our legislation into alignment to remove any further cause for inaction on the most critical public health and public safety issue of our time.”

We Must Support People Who Use Substances, Not Punish Them. Here’s How.


Harm reduction includes widely accepted approaches such as needle exchanges and more recent innovations like fentanyl testing strips. Todd Huffman from Phoenix, AZ, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Susan E. Collins, PhD

Editor’s note: This Tuesday, the Washington State Legislature will convene in a special session to pass a new drug law, after a 2021 state supreme court decision known as Washington v. Blake effectively decriminalized drug possession. The legislature passed a temporary law re-criminalizing drugs until July 2023, expecting to pass a more comprehensive drug law during the legislative session that just ended; when legislators failed to reach an agreement, Gov. Jay Inslee called a special session to deal with Blake.

After decades of the failed and costly war on drugs, we have collectively learned that we cannot punish and incarcerate people into sobriety and wellness. And in the wake of the 2021 Washington State Supreme Court Blake decision, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ensure recovery, not punishment, for people with substance use disorders by using the evidence-based tools of harm reduction.

However, more punitive measures are currently gaining traction, as state legislators and local government officials consider making public use, drug possession, and/or failure to comply with sobriety-based treatment punishable with jail time and fines.

Why? Some argue jail time can serve as a wake-up call. But recent studies have shown incarceration is associated with worsened physical and mental health, including increased drug use. And it can be deadly: Washington state has the fourth highest jail mortality rate in the country. Due to stronger opioids like fentanyl, jail time can also set people up for overdose. That’s why, in Washington state, people who get out of jail have a risk of overdose death that is at least 16 times higher than for everyone else.

We talk about how to be safer and healthier, even if patients continue to use, and we track metrics to show incremental positive changes. Our studies show this approach to be engaging and effective.

Once we learned these old ways were hurting and not helping, my colleagues and I at the Harm Reduction Research and Treatment (HaRRT) Center at the University of Washington started to ask people who use substances how we could do better. They told us to meet them where they are and not require them to get sober to get help. They wanted to learn, step-by-step, how to reduce substance-related harm and improve quality of life for themselves, their families and their communities. This is called harm reduction.

After spending the past 15 years testing such approaches, here’s what our research and clinical group has found.

Our evaluations of law-enforcement assisted diversion showed that diverting people away from jail to harm-reduction case management and legal assistance was associated with 60 percent lower recidivism, reduced legal and criminal justice system use and costs, and greater likelihood of obtaining housing, employment and legitimate income.

Another successful community-level intervention is providing Housing First, or immediate, permanent, low-barrier housing and supportive services that do not require sobriety to help people meet their basic needs. Contrary to some people’s initial fears, our research has shown that providing Housing First does not “enable” substance use. Studies of Housing First here in Washington State show that it is associated with long-term reductions in alcohol use, alcohol-related harm, and use of jail and publicly funded healthcare. These findings have held in rigorous tests in other parts of the world as well.

Low-barrier shelters, which provide safer-use equipment and spaces, are another effective way to reduce harm. Our evaluation showed this approach did not increase substance use. In fact, people staying in the low-barrier Navigation Center in Seattle were 23 percent less likely to report any alcohol or drug use for each month after their move-in date. Instead, this approach was linked to better general health and a stronger commitment to protecting self and others through safer use.

In another approach, harm-reduction treatment, which can include counseling alone or combined with medication, clinicians set aside a demand for sobriety and instead ask patients, “What do you want to see happen for yourself?” We talk about how to be safer and healthier, even if patients continue to use, and we track metrics to show incremental positive changes.

Our studies show this approach to be engaging and effective. Over 90 percent of those approached have accepted help. We have also seen use and substance-related harm cut in more than half. And even though this harm-reduction treatment approach doesn’t require sobriety, positive urine tests for alcohol decrease as well because some patients decide to get sober after all.

In the case of one client, it took a year and a half to stop using, but even before then, he was reducing his use, recovering from depression, and rebuilding a relationship with his family after 5 years of prison and unsheltered homelessness. He sent me a picture of him and his family at Disneyland, captioning it with “It took a village. But harm reduction worked for me. For the first time in my life, I am truly happy.”

At this watershed moment, let’s remember to support and not punish people for having a substance use disorder. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s what works.

Dr. Susan Collins codirects the Harm Reduction Research & Treatment Center at the University of Washington School of Medicine. The center receives no funding from the tobacco, vaping or pharmaceutical industries. She also is a professor of psychology at Washington State University. The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and not the positions of the University of Washington or Washington State University.

State Legislature Funds Social Services, Will Revisit Drug Policy After Failing to Act

Photo by Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 4.0

By Andrew Engelson

With Democrats unable to pass a new drug possession law required by the Blake state supreme court ruling before the 2022 session ended, Gov. Jay Inslee, who revcently announced he won’t run for a fourth term, called a special session of the legislature, which will begin on May 16 and could last up to 30 days. In a statement, Inslee said he was “optimistic about reaching an agreement that can pass both chamber[s]. Cities and counties are eager to see a statewide policy that balances accountability and treatment, and I believe we can produce a bipartisan bill that does just that.”

Inslee’s emphasis on “bipartisan” seems to indicate he’lll be pushing for the more punitive version of the bill, which would make drug possession a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to 364 days in jail. That bill failed to pass after 11 House Democrats voted against it and no Republicans voted for it. The House version set the penalty for possession at a simple misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail, and offered more options for diversion to services or treatment instead of jail.

The state’s long-neglected Aged, Blind, and Disabled (ABD) cash grant program got multiple boosts, including passage of HB 1260, which ends the pay-back requirement for an assistance program that benefits some of the state’s poorest residents.

On his website, Sen. Mark Mullet (D-5, Issaquah), who favors a more punitive approach of the bill that includes coercive treatment, said he hoped legislators could resolve their differences in a one-day special session. 

However, for the bill to pass the House without progressive support, some Republicans will need to get on board. In a letter to Inslee last week, House Republicans said any new bill would need to make possession a gross misdemeanor, allow local governments to outlaw drug paraphernalia such as needles and smoking supplies, and require advance public notice whenever a new opioid treatment facility opened.

If progressive Democrats are going to pass a less punitive version of the bill without those Republican votes, they can only afford to lose four centrist Democrats.  

In the meantime, the legislature passed its two-year budget, with $9 billion in capital funding, a $13.5 billion transportation plan, and a $69.3 billion operating budget. Behavioral health services got a substantial boost of $603 million to $1.2 billion, and $140 million in opioid settlement funds will pay for services for people with substance use disorders. 

In the operating budget, the state’s long-neglected Aged, Blind, and Disabled (ABD) cash grant program got multiple boosts, including passage of HB 1260, which ends the pay-back requirement for an assistance program that benefits some of the state’s poorest residents. The budget boosts funding for the ABD program by 8 percent, and includes $50 million to eliminate the requirement that people who received ABD while waiting to qualify for federal disability benefits pay the state back for the benefits they received.

The operating budget also includes a $26.5 million boost for the Housing and Essential Needs (HEN) rental and basic-needs assistance program and a $45 million increase intended to improve wages for human services workers. House Bill 1474, introduced by Rep. Jamila Taylor, (D-30, Federal Way) creates a fund to provide assistance to first-time homebuyers adversely affected by a history of racist covenants and redlining. The $150 million fund will be financed by a $100 increase in the document recording fee, which is added to real estate transactions and which currently also funds much of the state’s operating budget for grants to nonprofits that run low-income housing, homeless services, and emergency shelters.

The state’s capital budget included $520 million for affordable housing, including $400 million for the Housing Trust Fund (a substantial increase over the $175 million allocated to the fund in the 2021-22 budget), $40 million to purchase land for affordable housing, and $14.5 million specifically for shelter and housing for youth.

The biennial budget, as well as HB 1260 and HB 1474, are still awaiting the governor’s signature.

Proposal to Make Public Drug Use a Misdemeanor Unlikely to Have Much Visible Impact

City Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Sara Nelson; City Attorney Ann Davison

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle City Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen, along with City Attorney Ann Davison, proposed legislation on Thursday that would make public consumption of illegal drugs, other than cannabis, a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000.

The legislation comes in the context of the state legislature’s failure to address drug possession in the session that ended Sunday. In 2021, the state supreme court issued a called State v. Blake, which decriminalized simple drug possession—previously a felony. In response, lawmakers passed a temporary law that made possession a misdemeanor, rather than a felony, giving themselves until July of this year to come up with a permanent replacement. Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to call a special session on the issue next month.

Meanwhile, cities around the state are already proposing their own local laws criminalizing drug possession that would go in effect if the legislature fails to take action by July.

The proposal in Seattle does not directly address drug possession. Instead, it focuses on the kind of visible, public use that grabs headlines—people smoking meth or fentanyl on park benches, in doorways, and on public transit. At a press conference announcing the legislation on Thursday, Davison, Nelson, and Pedersen all framed public drug use as a public safety issue and suggested that their legislation would send a signal to drug users that they could no longer use in public spaces.

“Enough is enough. We need to reclaim our public spaces—all of them. We need to intervene in the lives of people who are suffering and to do that we must see them and say that what they’re doing in public is not okay for them, or for us collectively.”—City Attorney Ann Davison

“Our buses are unhealthy to use. Our transit centers feel unsafe to wait in, and people walking down the street feel afraid,” Davison said. “Enough is enough. We need to reclaim our public spaces—all of them. We need to intervene in the lives of people who are suffering and to do that we must see them and say that what they’re doing in public is not okay for them, or for us collectively.”

Nelson said the “economic revitalization of downtown” depended on “giv[ing] our officers a tool to interrupt” public drug consumption. Workers “are afraid to ride public transit to work or walk to their office past people smoking fentanyl on the street,” she said. “Meanwhile, summer’s around the corner, and parents want to be able to take their part their kids to the park without people doing drugs right in front of them.”

Despite all the tough talk, the legislation—if it passes—is unlikely to have much of an impact on public drug use downtown or elsewhere. (Notably, although all of its supporters focused on mitigating harm to children, the legislation is silent on private drug use by parents or caregivers, which causes far more harm to actual children than walking past a stranger smoking fentanyl in the park).

For one thing, as Davison acknowledged, the Seattle Police Department doesn’t have enough officers to enforce the drug laws that are already on the books, including laws against dealing and trafficking. For another, the downtown jail isn’t booking people on low-level misdemeanors, and won’t be starting any time soon—just last month, the county moved 100 people from the downtown jail in because of understaffing.

“I recognize that [SPD is] down 30 percent of their force, and we need to make sure that they’ve got adequate staffing levels to be able to improve the public safety of people and businesses across the city,” Nelson said. “What I’m worried about right now is getting the basics right, and making explicit that we don’t allow the public use of illegal drugs.”

As she did during Harrell’s executive order announcement, Nelson distinguished between “deadly” illegal drugs and alcohol, supporting Harrell’s proposal to legalize “sip and strolls” events where people participating in downtown events can consume alcohol on sidewalks and other public spaces. Prior to the pandemic, alcohol use killed 140,000 Americans every year, according to the CDC, and alcohol consumption as well as binge drinking has only increased since then.

Davison said she hoped to work with “our diversion partners to get people into treatment. … The goal is always recovery—to disrupt antisocial behavior, to encourage people into treatment, and to make our streets parks and buses safer.”

The city’s primary pre-filing diversion program, LEAD, is not primarily focused on putting people in treatment as an alternative to jail; instead, it provides intensive case management based on a person’s needs, with a focus on harm reduction.

The co-director of the organization that runs LEAD, Purpose Dignity Action (formerly the Public Defender Association), said Thursday that the legislation “could be far worse, as we can see from the bill that was passed by the Democratically controlled Senate.” That bill made drug possession a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to 364 days in jail, with a treatment alternative that carried harsh penalties for “failure to comply” with mandatory treatment.

“Aside from using the criminal system for what are fundamentally health issues, this legislation doesn’t inflict any additional problems or harm,” Daugaard said.

“I want to see that this legislation was created with appropriate input from impacted communities, law enforcement and first responders, and providers of triage and treatment. Another policy tool helping people accept services may enhance our efforts, but recreating the war on drugs would crater them.”—Mayor Bruce Harrell

In a statement, City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, said she would “not consider a local Blake decision fix or any local drug laws” until the legislature has had a chance to meet in special session and come up with a fix. … I remain committed to Seattle’s approach, as outlined as recently as last week in Mayor Bruce Harrell’s Executive Order, to work to ensure people struggling with addiction get the treatment they need.”

As we reported earlier this month, Harrell’s executive order includes support for a new pilot contingency management program that will provide incentives for drug users who abstain from their drug of choice; it also expands the fire department’s Health One program to include a new overdose response unit.

In a statement, Harrell said that although “[i]t is never acceptable for people to smoke fentanyl or consume illegal drugs on Seattle sidewalks and public spaces… it is essential that we advance evidence-based policies, programs, and services that help those in need get the treatment they deserve–and continue focusing on arrests of those dealing or taking advantage of people in crisis, both of which are critical to restoring feelings of safety downtown and for all Seattle neighbors.”

“I want to see that this legislation was created with appropriate input from impacted communities, law enforcement and first responders, and providers of triage and treatment,” Harrell continued. “Another policy tool helping people accept services may enhance our efforts, but recreating the war on drugs would crater them.”

State’s Failure to Pass Drug Possession Bill Could Lead to Patchwork of Local Laws

By Andrew Engelson

Over the weekend, the legislative debate over the state’s new drug possession law took a surprising turn, as 15 house Democrats voted against—and helped defeat—a compromise bill that would have made possession of drugs such as fentanyl, meth, and cocaine a gross misdemeanor, which can result in up to 364 days in jail. 

The legislature was forced to deal with the issue of drug possession because of the 2021 state supreme court ruling Washington State v. Blake, which tossed out the state’s existing law on narrow legal grounds. A temporary law passed in 2021 expires on July 1, and Democrats have been scuffling all session over how to replace it, swerving between a public health/harm reduction approach and a more punitive bill focused on prison time and coercive treatment.

Earlier in the session, house Democrats had passed a bill that made drug possession a simple misdemeanor and focused on treatment and diversion. The more punitive senate bill proposed pushing people arrested for possession into treatment and sending those who drop out of treatment back to jail.

Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-23, Bremerton) who served time in prison for a drug possession conviction and who advocated for a less punitive version of the bill, was among the Democrats who voted against the senate compromise.

“Putting people in a cold concrete cell room and shaming them is not how you get people to change their behavior.”—Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-23, Bremerton)

At the end of the day, we have to do no harm,” Simmons said, noting that making the penalty for drug possession a gross misdemeanor allows for a maximum sentence of almost a year in prison, making the law even more strict than the previous felony possession law. “I would have hoped the Democrats in the Senate could have conferenced a more compassionate and humane bill.”

“Putting people in a cold concrete cell room and shaming them is not how you get people to change their behavior,” she said.

Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Redmond), who helped craft the final, compromise version of the bill, had hoped a handful of House Republicans would vote for the final bill. In the end, none of them did. “It was bipartisan in the senate because that’s what we needed,” Dhingra said of the senate version, which passed with the support of 14 Democrats and 14 Republicans. “We needed our Republican colleagues to work with us towards that solution. And in the house, [Democrats] had 43 votes and none of the Republicans showed up to vote for it.”

During a press conference on Sunday, Gov. Jay Inslee hinted that he might call a special session before the temporary law expires on July 1, to avoid effectively decriminalizing drug possession in the state. “We need to hammer out a bill that could pass and that needs to happen before July 1,” Inslee said. He pointed fingers at House Republicans for failing to vote for the senate bill. “We expect the Washington state legislature to produce a bill that will not decriminalize drugs, will provide measures for treatment and will provide some sanction for those who fail to accept treatment,” he said.

But considering Democrats hold the governor’s mansion and substantial majorities in both houses of the legislature, the failure to come to a compromise rests on their shoulders.

In a press release, Rep. Peter Abbarno (R-20, Centralia) took a harsh line on drug possession, saying, “Senate Bill 5536 took the very policies that have failed to address substance abuse on the local level and would have expanded those failed policies statewide. It would have led to more substance abuse, more homelessness, more preventable tragedies, and less local control. If the majority party were serious about addressing this crisis, they would work with us, on a bipartisan basis, and pass legislation that effectively helps people recover from addiction.”

Minority leader Drew Stokesbary (R-31, Auburn) and Rep. Roger Goodman (D-45, Kirkland), who was involved in crafting the final house version of the bill, did not respond to requests for comment.

If the legislature doesn’t reconvene and pass a bill by July 1, the state will be without a drug possession law and drugs such as opioids, meth, and cocaine will no longer be criminalized at the state level. That could leave Washington with a patchwork of varying laws as local jurisdictions pass their own ordinances.

“I recognize that substance use disorder is a medical issue and treatment services are necessary. However, without proper support and encouragement, a person with a substance use disorder cannot be expected to make the decision to stop using.”—Kent Mayor Dana Ralph

Without missing a beat, Kent Mayor Dana Ralph announced on Monday that she plans to propose legislation to the Kent City Council making drug possession a gross misdemeanor. In a press release, Ralph made arguments for coercive treatment, going so far as to suggest people with substance use disorder don’t have the capacity or agency to decide for themselves if they want to enter recovery.

“I recognize that substance use disorder is a medical issue and treatment services are necessary,” Ralph said. “However, without proper support and encouragement, a person with a substance use disorder cannot be expected to make the decision to stop using.”

The mayor of another south King County city, Des Moines, said he would propose a bill criminalizing drug possession, banning the use of illegal drugs in public places, and “making it a crime… to be in possession of drug paraphernalia.” This would criminalize possession of needles and pipes legally obtained from harm-reduction programs such as needle exchanges, and potentially items like the lighters and foil that are used to vaporize fentanyl.

In 2018, King and Snohomish counties stopped prosecuting anyone caught with less than one gram of drugs, and turned instead to programs such as LEAD, which focuses on pre-arrest diversion to social services, treatment, housing, and behavioral health services. “Places like the city of Seattle,” Simmons said, “will continue to treat people humanely and offer harm reduction.”

Last week, Mayor Bruce Harrell unveiled a Downtown Activation Plan that focuses, in part, on the fentanyl crisis. Along with a vaguely described commitment to “arrest and hold accountable narcotics traffickers,” the plan includes a short menu of harm reduction efforts including expansion of the Seattle Fire Department’s overdose response unit, increasing availability of drug overdose medications such as naloxone, and a pilot “contingency management,” program that will give low-value rewards to people with substance use disorders who abstain from their drug of choice.

Simmons hopes the legislature will return in a special session or next year and pass a bill that limits penalties for possession and funds treatment, housing, and behavioral health services. “My life and my family were impacted for the worse because I was incarcerated,” she said. “This loss is hard. It’s very personal for me.”

Full 911 Audio Sheds More Light on SPD’s Explanation for Deadly Crash; Bill Expanding Police Pursuits Passes Legislature

1. Unredacted audio of the 911 call to which Seattle police officer Kevin Dave was allegedly responding when he struck and killed student Jaahnavi Kandula in January further confirms that the caller had used cocaine, not opiates, and was breathing heavily but calm when he called 911 to report that he was “freaking out.” PubliCola obtained the audio through a records request.

Police Chief Adrian Diaz has said Dave was responding “as an EMT” to provide medical aid at a Priority 1 overdose call when he hit Kandula. Dave is certified as an EMT, but there is no evidence beyond Diaz’ statement that he was responding as a medic rather than a police officer, and the 911 call itself contradicts that claim.

SPD has also said police need to be present when Fire Department medics are reviving someone from an opiate overdose in order to provide backup if the person is violent when they come to and to keep people from stealing items or intervening while SFD medics are occupied with rescue breathing and other lifesaving measures. However, the full recording of the 911 call makes it clear that the caller had used cocaine, not opiates, and told the dispatcher his symptoms were “starting to go away” by the end of the six-and-a-half-minute call.

In the first moments of the recording, the caller, a man in his 20s, told the dispatcher, “I did cocaine and I don’t know if I’m having an overdose. I think I’m over-amped.” After being transferred to a dispatcher for Medic One, the Seattle Fire Department’s emergency medical response team, the caller added that he was “trying not to freak out” and was standing outside his apartment building. “Do you think you’ve overdosed?” the dispatcher asked. “I looked it up and I think so,” he said. “I’m extremely anxious,” the caller added, and “shaking a little bit.”

The original dispatcher then kept the man on the line, telling him to breathe and getting more information. “Am I going to get in trouble?” the man asked. “Oh, no,” the dispatcher responded. “I’m still just kind of freaking out right now, but it’s starting to go away,” the caller said. By the end of the call, the dispatcher and caller were joking about the weather. “At least it’s not raining today, right?” the dispatcher said. “That’s one way to look at it, yeah,” the caller responded.

SPD is doing an internal investigation into whether Dave was acting within SPD policy when he hit Kandula in a marked and lighted South Lake Union intersection. Three months after the crash, the department has not said when it will conclude its investigation.

2. The state senate gave final approval Monday to a bill that will lower the standard of evidence required for police officers across the state to initiate vehicle pursuits, sending the bill to Governor Jay Inslee’s desk.

Under SB 5352, sponsored by Senator John Lovick (D-44 Lake Stevens), officers will only need to have a “reasonable suspicion” that a driver has committed a violent crime or is driving under the influence. The bill reverses a 2021 change in state law that raised the standard for most offenses, apart from DUI, to a higher “probable cause” standard, which requires more evidence, with the aim of reducing pursuits overall.

The policy change nearly failed to move forward earlier this session, when state house leaders declined to bring their version of the bill to the floor for a vote ahead of a key deadline, prompting state senate leaders, in a dramatic move, to bring the bill to the floor even though it had never received a hearing in that chamber.

“I am asking you to vote no because the people trusted us, and they are disappointed that we are rolling back something that they thought put us on the first step to accountability.” —Debra Entenman (D-47, Covington)

Inslee is expected to sign the bill. “I think we need to move this needle, I think that’s where the public is,” he said in early March. 

The house approved the bill on April 10, with opposition from both Republicans who wanted it to go further and allow more pursuits for non-violent offenses like auto thefts, and from Democrats who say the current policy, which allows fewer pursuits, is saving lives.

Many Democrats view the reversal as a step back for police accountability in Washington. Before the house floor vote earlier this month, Representative Debra Entenman (D-47, Covington) noted that the bill reversed recommendations made by legislative task force created in 2020 in response to nationwide protests over racial injustice.

“I am asking you to vote no because the people trusted us…and they are disappointed that we are rolling back something that they thought put us on the first step to accountability,” she said. 

Last year, the legislature rolled back another 2021 law that prevented police from using force to prevent people from walking away from investigative stops, also known as Terry stops.

A previous version of the pursuit bill included a 2025 sunset date, but that’s no longer in the bill. Some of Washington’s largest police departments, like Seattle and Tacoma, already have policies in place that require a higher standard of evidence to pursue a suspect.

—Erica C. Barnett, Ryan Packer

Harrell Proposes Investing in Evidence-Based Approaches to Addiction as Part of Downtown Revitalization Plan


Mayor Bruce Harrell and City Councilmember Sara Nelson

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Bruce Harrell issued an executive order Monday expanding Health One to include a new overdose response unit aimed at getting people into treatment, directing the Seattle Police Department to “prioritize enforcing [illegal drug] sales and distribution related crimes to the fullest extent permissible,” and committing the city to “site, explore funding for, and work with the University of Washington Addictions, Drug and Alcohol Institute (UW ADAI), and County partners to establish a post overdose diversion facility where EMS can bring people after non-fatal overdoses to recover, get stabilized on medications, and access resources.”

Currently, when medics revive someone who has overdosed, the person can either agree to go to the hospital, where they’ll get information about treatment, or decline; a post-overdose facility would provide another route for people who would ordinarily decline additional care.

“What’s going to happen now is that [in addition to Fire Department medics], Health One is also going to respond” to overdoses, Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins said at an event announcing the order in Pioneer Square Monday afternoon. “Health One comes with case managers and firefighters who are trained [to] talk to folks and really explain the resources that are available to them. After the fire units leave, the police units leave, Health One will still be on the scene.”

The order also endorses an evidence-based harm reduction strategy called contingency management, which involves providing incentives, such as low-dollar gift certificates, to drug or alcohol users who enroll in treatment and stay clean.

Harrell didn’t have many details about the plan to open a post-overdose response site, such as how it would be funded, who would staff it, or—importantly—why people who overdosed and refused to go to Harborview would be willing to go to a different facility. “Full disclosure: How it’s staffed, how we fund it—that’s the work we’re trying to do now, because in looking at the numbers of fatalities and overdoses, we realize that’s sort of a gap in our treatment scenario,” Harrell said.

The order also endorses an evidence-based harm reduction strategy called contingency management, which involves providing incentives, such as low-dollar gift certificates, to drug or alcohol users who enroll in treatment and stay clean. Contingency management has been especially effective at reducing stimulant use, for which—unlike opiates—there is no drug-based treatment. “We will do what makes sense to get people in treatment,” Harrell said.

City Councilmember Sara Nelson, who is in recovery and has previously expressed opposition to harm reduction approaches like medication-assisted treatment, called  contingency management a “proven method…  that rewards people who want to stay sober, and get on the path to long term recovery, no matter what their addiction.” After the press conference, she told PubliCola the program already has a funding source: Seattle’s share of a statewide fund that resulted from a settlement in the state’s lawsuit against the three largest opiate distributors.

The executive order also commits the city to “convene a workgroup to map out the various local, county and state programs and services available to treat and respond to the opioid and synthetic drug crisis.”

“This time-limited workgroup will be tasked with identifying gaps in our current systems and making recommendations on how to better coordinate a treatment-first approach to reducing substance abuse disorders and overdose rates. The workgroup will also assess ongoing investments and programs to determine what is working well and how existing investments could be expanded to serve more people.”

As a separate part of the downtown plan, the head of the city’s Office of Economic Development, Markham McIntyre, announced that the city will reopen City Hall Park next to the downtown King County Courthouse, which has been closed and fenced off since 2021 (more “jumbo chess boards”); open up streets to pedestrians  more often for special events, including, “perhaps, on-street pickleball tournaments”; and ask the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board for “sip and stroll” liquor permits that would allow people to walk around with drinks during events like First Thursday art walks.

Drug Possession Bill Moves Forward with Less Punitive Approach

By Andrew Engelson

The legislative battle over Washington’s new drug possession law took another turn last week when Democrats in the house Community Safety, Justice, and Reentry committee offered a new version of the bill, which would make drug possession a simple misdemeanor, offer more options for treatment and diversion instead of jail, legalize harm reduction paraphernalia like syringes statewide, and eliminate punitive jail time for those who fail to complete treatment.

Legislators have been in a vigorous debate this session over the state’s drug possession law after a 2021 ruling called Blake v. Washington. Although the case concerned a fairly narrow question about “knowing” possession, the court ended up tossing out the state’s possession law altogether, prompting legislators to pass a temporary law that expires in July.

Last month, in a surprise move, moderate Democrats significantly modified a proposed replacement for the expiring law with a series of amendments that increased drug possession to a gross misdemeanor and in most cases required judges to impose minimum jail sentences for those convicted who failed to complete treatment.

Rep. Roger Goodman (D-45, Kirkland), who chairs the committee, told PubliCola his striker amendment removes some of the more punitive aspects of the original senate bill, which would have made drug possession a gross misdemeanor—a charge that carries a penalty of up to 364 days in jail and a maximum $5,000 fine.

“Even when your possession was a felony, you could have three or four prior offenses and it still wouldn’t allow up to 364 days in jail,” Goodman said. “[The Senate version] actually increases the confinement time from what it used to be as a felony. So that’s not acceptable.”

“The House Democrats are horrified–including myself—by the prospect of returning to the war on drugs,” he said. “Ninety days in jail, which is what a simple misdemeanor brings, is certainly more than enough.”

“[Prison] was traumatic not only for me, but for my children,” who were 8 and 18 at the time, State Rep. Tarra Simmons said. “When you’re in jail, it’s not a trauma-informed therapeutic environment. Nobody’s getting better in jail.”

On Tuesday, the house Appropriations committee passed an additional striker amendment stipulating that if someone is convicted of possession and either completes treatment or has a clean criminal record for one year, the conviction will be removed from their record. Rep Lauren Davis (D-32, Shoreline) introduced the striker, and wrote the amendment to vacate convictions with help from  Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-23, Bremerton), who is the first person to serve in the legislature who has also served time in prison.

“When you have that stigma of the criminal record on your record forever, it limits where you can go in the future,” Simmons said. 

Simmons also said she’s working with Goodman, Davis, Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle), and others on a floor amendment that would require prosecutors to divert a person’s first drug possession conviction to services and/or treatment. That  needs to  happen sometime before next Wednesday, the cutoff date for bills to pass in their opposite chamber.

The current version of the bill eliminates a provision added in the Senate that would require the Washington State Patrol forensic lab to deliver tests of drugs held in evidence within 45 days, and creates new misdemeanor offenses for “knowing” possession and public drug use. The provision on public use could be a carrot for centrist Democrats such as Sen. Jesse Salomon (D-32, Shoreline) who talked at length in testimony for his more punitive drug possession bill about seeing public drug use near his child’s school.

Simmons, who was first elected in 2020, has been actively involved in the drug possession bill in part because of her own experience with substance use and the criminal justice system. After experiencing childhood trauma and teen pregnancy, Simmons struggled with substance abuse disorder, using opioids and methamphetamine. She was convicted of drug possession, possession with intent to deliver, and theft in 2011 and served 20 months in prison. 

“It was traumatic not only for me, but for my children,” who were 8 and 18 at the time. “When you’re in jail, it’s not a trauma-informed therapeutic environment. Nobody’s getting better in jail.”

A nurse by training, Simmons went to law school and successfully challenged a Washington State Bar rule that wouldn’t let her practice law because of her felony conviction. Of the current version of the bill, Simmons said, “I strongly believe that substance use disorder is a health issue”—one that coercion and punishment fail to address. 

“In the house, we may have a number of Democrats who can’t stand to vote for a bill that has any criminal penalties. And you may have Republicans who are not happy with the mandatory jail sanctions being removed and they may not vote for the bill.”—State Rep. Roger Goodman

The bill is likely to pass the house. The next step will be negotiations between the house and senate about which version will ultimately move forward. Goodman is confident the less coercive version will prevail, and Simmons says if it doesn’t, she won’t vote for it. 

“The Senate version had absolutely no mandatory options for diversion or post-conviction vacation or any of that,” she said. “The Senate version is the worst that we would get anywhere in the state. And so I could not vote for that.”

It isn’t just progressive Democrats who may balk at a compromise bill, Goodman said.

“In the house, we may have a number of Democrats who can’t stand to vote for a bill that has any criminal penalties,” he said. “And you may have Republicans who are not happy with the mandatory jail sanctions being removed and they may not vote for the bill.”

If the legislature fails to pass a law this session (unlikely, but not outside the realm of possibility), the existing temporary law will expire on July 1, leaving Washington in the same place it was immediately after the Blake ruling–with no law on the books regarding drug possession. Simmons expressed concern that in that absence, counties and cities could pass their own possession laws with stricter penalties than any of the proposals legislators are currently debating. “If we don’t do something, then the local jurisdictions will create their own ordinances and we’ll have a patchwork across the state,” she said.  

In the meantime, Goodman says he’s committed to moving away from the war-on-drugs mentality of previous decades. “We need to learn what we did three years ago [passing the temporary possession bill], by starting to build up behavioral health infrastructure and more evidence-based interventions,” he said.

Cash Benefits, Drug Possession Bills Move Forward

Michele Thomas of the Washington Low-Income Housing Alliance testifies about benefits for low-income people at a senate committee last week.

By Andy Engelson

Two bills that would have a significant impact on poor and vulnerable people moved forward in the legislature this week. 

The first —a bill sponsored by Rep. Emily Alvarado (D-34, Seattle) that would end the requirement that people who receive the state’s Aged, Blind, and Disabled (ABD) cash assistance program pay back these benefits once they qualify for federal disability aid—passed out of the senate’s human services committee last week. ABD recipients are generally some of the lowest-income people in the state: 57 percent struggle with mental illness and 33 percent are homeless. The reform bill is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Thursday, the final hurdle before a floor vote.

In testimony before the human services committee, Michele Thomas of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance said ending the pay-back requirement is long overdue. 

“It changes an unfair, decades-long practice of forcing people to forgo their SSI payments that [impoverished people] desperately need,” Thomas said. “Please understand that at the same time folks are required to make these back payments, they also lose their eligibility for the Housing & Essential Needs [HEN] rental assistance program, which is already furthering their instability.” HEN is a federal program that provides emergency rent and utility assistance and access to basic household supplies to people with disabilities.

A bill that would have better aligned HEN and ABD benefits and guaranteed at least 12 months of HEN support to recipients failed to pass out of a senate committee earlier this session. 

The second bill that’s moving forward is Sen June Robinson’s (D-38, Everett) bill revising the state’s drug possession policy in response to the 2021 Blake state Supreme Court ruling that found the previous law unconstitutional. The bill, which makes possessing small amounts of drugs, such as fentanyl and meth, a gross misdemeanor and requires prosecutors to divert people into coercive treatment, received a hearing in the House Community Safety, Justice, and Reentry committee on Monday.

In testimony to the committee, Sen. Robinson gave her bill mixed reviews. Centrist Senate Democrats modified the bill substantially with amendments, including a provision that forces those who drop out of court-mandated treatment to serve jail time. “My goal is to find a balance, and that is very hard to do,” Robinson told the committee. “A balance between compassion and lots of options for treatment, and—some people call them off-ramps. But, options for diversion, treatment, and services for folks who are found to be in possession of illegal substances. And also to give our communities the tools that they are asking for in these situations.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s perfect or exactly the right balance, but you will grapple with that,” Robinson told her colleagues in the House.