Joseph Anderson, right, chats with Steve Manshour during Art Studio time at the Everett Recovery CaFE on Wednesday, May 10, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Joseph Anderson, right, chats with Steve Manshour during Art Studio time at the Everett Recovery CaFE on Wednesday, May 10, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

For those who lived through addiction, a split on whether jail can help

State lawmakers convene Tuesday aiming to write a new law against drug possession. In Everett, it’s a thorny and complicated debate.

EVERETT — For Jennifer Cunningham, who turned her life around after a 25-year struggle with addiction, criminalizing drugs is not the answer.

Incarceration, she said, is like “going to the walk-in clinic for a gunshot wound. You’re just putting a Band-Aid on (the problem).”

Nicole Speaks, another advocate, sees it differently. Jail changed the course of her life.

“People can go one direction or the other,” she said. Either they continue abusing drugs or use the legal consequences as “an eye-opener — and that’s how I chose to use it.”

Cunningham and Speaks are just two voices in a divide over criminalizing drugs in the aftermath of a 2021 state Supreme Court ruling known as the Blake decision. Justices ruled the law making drug possession a felony was unconstitutional, because it didn’t specify “knowing” possession.

State lawmakers approved a temporary law making possession a misdemeanor, but it’s set to expire July 1. Senate Bill 5536 was expected to take its place, but it didn’t go through. Lawmakers couldn’t agree whether it was too strict or not strict enough.

On Tuesday, the state Legislature will convene for a special session to hash out a new law. Some cities, like Everett, have been scrambling in recent months to pass their own local ordinances.

A bipartisan group of Snohomish County mayors have been meeting to discuss local drug laws.

The stakes are dire.

In Snohomish County, at least 82 people have died from overdoses so far this year, according to data from the county medical examiner’s office.

Advocates can agree on one thing: Something has to change.

There’s some common ground in the debate over criminalization.

Those who don’t agree with incarcerating people for possession may still believe, as Cunningham does, that court-ordered treatment can help people to get the help they need.

Those who think jail time is necessary sometimes, like Speaks, want people to be able to access resources through the legal system.

‘All I could think about was getting out’

To understand Cunningham’s views, begin with her past.

She dropped out of school in seventh grade and, at age 13, started using meth.

Now 41, she celebrated six years sober last month.

In the year leading up to her sobriety, Cunningham ran into legal troubles. She was charged in two theft cases. Each had charges for drug possession attached. In 2016 and 2017, she estimated she was arrested about 10 times.

“Every single time,” she said, “all I could think about was getting out and getting high again.”

That’s why she doesn’t think jailing people is the best way to deal with substance use disorder.

It was an order from a judge that led to her treatment. Cunningham agreed to go, thinking she’d start using again when she got out. But after a few months, something changed.

Listening to other women in treatment, she was struck by how happy they were. After a traumatic childhood, she said, “I never thought that it was possible for an addict like me to genuinely be happy.”

Cunningham’s program was six months long, an amount of time she said was crucial.

She doesn’t believe in short-term 28-day programs.

Even after treatment, her past limited her options. Before the Blake ruling, drug possession was a felony. Apartments wouldn’t rent to her because of her record. A single parent, Cunningham lived in transitional housing for months with a young daughter, she said.

Today, Cunningham works at the Everett Recovery Cafe, a gathering space for people in recovery from addiction, homelessness and mental health struggles.

She’s set to graduate next month from Edmonds College with a degree in social and human services, as well as from Leadership Snohomish County, a nonprofit that runs leadership development programs.

“Stuff like that doesn’t usually happen to people like me,” she said.

Because of that, it’s important to her to advocate for others.

It’s important “with these new laws that we hear every side,” Cunningham said. “Almost everybody has been touched by addiction in one form or another.”

Giovanni S. works on an an orca drawing in the art studio at the Everett Recovery Cafe on Wednesday, May 10, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Giovanni S. works on an an orca drawing in the art studio at the Everett Recovery Cafe on Wednesday, May 10, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘Look in that mirror’

Nicole Speaks, too, is informed by her life story.

After being introduced to meth around age 20, she spiraled out of control for years. The need to support her habit led her to break the law, though she didn’t face legal repercussions at the beginning.

Several years in, Speaks went to treatment. She relapsed six months later. In the depth of her addiction, she took her 3-year-old son with her to drug dens.

“The poor kid saw things that no child should ever see and experience, and nobody called CPS on me,” she said. “It just was horrific.”

Finally, police arrested her on a nonviolent charge. In the Snohomish County Jail, an officer put her in front of a mirror.

“Look in that mirror,” she remembered him saying. “I bet you were beautiful at one time. And look at yourself, look what you’ve done to yourself, look what these drugs are doing to you.”

That moment made a big impact.

“It was the first time that I had really looked at myself,” Speaks said. “Had I not gone to jail, had that officer not had the compassion that he had … I don’t know where I’d be.”

She’s been sober ever since, aside from one day right after she got out of jail, she said.

It wasn’t easy.

Like Cunningham, Speaks faced stigma because of her addiction. At one point, she was escorted out of a job because of her criminal record. The experience made life harder for her, but it was also a wake-up call.

“I was done (with drugs),” Speaks said, “and the courts helped me … be done.”

Speaks is now executive director of Courage to Change Recovery Services, a nonprofit that supports people struggling with addiction. The people she works with, she said, are confident they won’t face legal trouble because they can simply claim the drugs aren’t theirs.

“There’s so many broken pieces,” she said, “but we have to start somewhere.”

That doesn’t mean “throw them in jail and throw away the key,” but she supports legal consequences along with resources offered to people using substances. That could include drug courts or diversion programs, like the county’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program.

There’s a place for jail time as a tool, as well, Speaks said.

“Just jail by itself is not a solution,” she said. But “no consequence is not a solution, either.”

Artwork hangs on the walls in the art studio at the Everett Recovery Cafe on Wednesday, May 10, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Artwork hangs on the walls in the art studio at the Everett Recovery Cafe on Wednesday, May 10, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘A small price to pay’

Public safety is another pressing concern for Lindsey Arrington, founder of recovery support organization Hope Soldiers.

“Even my own clients are at risk from people that are living on the streets,” she said.

Arrington struggled with opioid addiction herself in her teens and early 20s. At an Everett City Council meeting May 3, she spoke in favor of the ban on public drug use. There’s an urgent need to get people help, she said in an interview, given the number of overdoses.

“If that happens to be jail and they face charges for misdemeanors, that’s a small price to pay to keep them alive,” she said. “It’s a small price to pay to keep other people alive and out of harm’s way.”

Jail, in Arrington’s view, gives people a chance to sober up and gain some clarity.

“That’s when people like myself can go in and offer solutions and they are a lot more willing to receive them,” she said.

Social worker Angela Di Filippo understands why people could see jail as a break in drug use and a chance to be connected to resources. But for her, “those connections are weak connections” and aren’t focused on meeting basic needs, like housing.

Incarceration “can traumatize people, it can lead to PTSD, depression and anxiety,” she said. People might be sober in jail. But there’s no stability to maintain that sobriety when they get out.

Di Filippo, who also spoke at the council meeting May 3, said in an interview she had been a social worker for almost 10 years, where she saw addiction up close.

She’s also the secretary of the county’s Human Rights Commission and a member of the Housing Action Alliance of Snohomish County, an affordable housing advocacy group.

More punishment for public drug use, she said, won’t lead to change. It’s when people are without a home that they’ll turn to “something to take the edge off the cold and rain and weather and the fact that people look down on you and don’t even register that you’re a full human,” Di Filippo said.

Many advocates stressed that a lack of affordable housing is intertwined with substance abuse.

Dana Gibson, a landlord engagement specialist at the YWCA, emphasized that people who are homeless “come from somewhere. They had a job and a life, potentially a wife and a car and children somewhere, before drugs just completely took them off the rails.”

Gibson has been in recovery herself for four years. For those who “need to relearn how to be in society,” she said, “I’m not sure that jail is going to be the answer to that.”

After jail, fines create an extra burden, said Jason Cockburn, vice president and founder of the Second Chance Foundation. A fine, he said, “just creates a debt that probably will never be paid.”

The Second Chance Foundation helps people who have dealt with homelessness, incarceration and addiction access higher education. They also provide housing and do community outreach.

Cockburn said he had legal debts he couldn’t pay from his years of addiction. He argued drug criminalization puts a strain on law enforcement and on the legal system, with no benefit to people who need help.

Jail creates a cycle, Cockburn said: People are released after a few days and beds at treatment centers are scarce.

The lack of space in treatment centers is a concern echoed by people on all sides.

“I can’t tell you how many times managing a detox that we had to just let people go, because we have nowhere to send them,” Speaks said. “It’s ridiculous. They go back out, they relapse, and they die.”

Everett Recovery Cafe Member Resource Coordinator and Recovery coach Jennifer Cunningham on Wednesday, May 10, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Everett Recovery Cafe Member Resource Coordinator and Recovery coach Jennifer Cunningham on Wednesday, May 10, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘You’re suffering, that’s fine’

Courtney O’Keefe, spokesperson for the sheriff’s office, wrote in an email that the Medication for Opioid Use Disorder program treats people going through withdrawal in the jail. She also wrote that people in jail “have the option to participate in AA, NA, substance-use meetings, as well as family and parenting classes.”

The statement highlighted the sheriff’s Office of Neighborhoods, noting that the homeless outreach team made contact with 1,027 people and helped several hundred get treatment in 2021. They also secured housing for 177 people and got 475 people scheduled for substance use assessments that year.

“These deputies, in partnership with social workers from Snohomish County Human Services SCOUT program, meet with inmates who are interested in treatment options prior to release to work with them on a treatment plan,” O’Keefe wrote.

She noted the jail supplies people with Narcan kits as they are discharged, if they’re assessed to be at risk of an overdose. The kits are part of the state’s naloxone distribution project.

Everett also has a Community Outreach and Engagement Team, consisting of police officers and social workers, that can connect people living on the street with treatment and other support. Police officers on the team can also enforce the law.

At the Everett Recovery Cafe midday on Wednesday, the debate on a state and local level felt far away. In a small room, fewer than a dozen people sat drawing and cutting out clippings from magazines as part of the cafe’s art studio.

But asked about drug criminalization, several members had thoughts.

Ginger, who declined to give her last name, said it’s a good thing.

“You should sit there with a nice stiff bail before you go to court,” she said, “so that you’re clean and dry and you’re able to make an informed decision about your future.”

Another attendee, Joe Anderson, disagreed. He advocated for an “empathy-based approach” and criticized the “revolving door” of jails. The community doesn’t want to see people dealing with addiction, said Anderson, who said he had been homeless.

“You’re suffering, that’s fine, I have to go to work” is their thought process, he said. “Please move.”

Sophia Gates: 425-339-3035;; Twitter: @SophiaSGates.

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