Recovery coins, such as these handed to those in treatment for addiction, could end up in more hands if a Senate bill sponsored by Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, reforming the state’s drug possession law, is adopted. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Recovery coins, such as these handed to those in treatment for addiction, could end up in more hands if a Senate bill sponsored by Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, reforming the state’s drug possession law, is adopted. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Editorial: Best option for addiction moves more into treatment

A Senate bill now in the House would use threat of jail as leverage while increasing access to treatment.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Instead of a split along party lines, the debate over how to address the issue of addiction in communities throughout Washington state has divided state lawmakers more along philosophical lines; on “carrot vs. stick,” whether to emphasize addiction treatment or punishment or, rather, a combination of those approaches.

For now, with bipartisan passage of a Senate bill last Friday that has now moved to the House for consideration, the potential resolution of the state Supreme Court’s Blake decision that ended felony prosecution for drug possession, has settled on using two tools in tandem: the threat of punishment and greater access to treatment.

Sponsored by state Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, Senate Bill 5536, splits the difference on punishment between the pre-Blake felony path and the current stop-gap law — which expires in July — of a misdemeanor charge.

Law enforcement and local government officials had complained that the current law has made it even more difficult to persuade people to seek treatment. Individuals could be charged with possession, but only on the third contact with law enforcement, with police and social workers only able to refer people to treatment on the first two contacts. Police complained that keeping track of prior contacts has been unworkable, and that without the threat of a charge, the referrals carry no weight for those suffering from addiction. As well, at the simple misdemeanor level, there are fewer options in court for diversion to treatment.

The Senate considered at least four bills on the subject that reflected the spectrum of opinion regarding solutions to addiction: one seeking a return to a felony charge, another that sought to decriminalize possession and improve treatment access and two — including Robinson’s bill — that sought a middle ground.

That’s what resulted in the split, not of parties, but of approaches in the 28-21 vote; 14 Democrats voted for the bill, but 15 voted against it, while the Republican split was 14 in favor and six against.

Robinson, speaking on the Senate floor during Friday’s debate, acknowledged how the debate had divided members of both parties.

“This is a very challenging public policy to talk about, to think about and to try to resolve,” said Robinson, who has a background in public and community health. “There’s not a single or perfect solution to the problem before us.”

Yet, it may be the best option of those available.

Along with boosting the penalty for possession of a controlled substance to a gross misdemeanor, using the threat of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine as leverage for treatment, the legislation creates a pretrial diversion program for those charged with possession, requires a minimum sentence of 21 days in jail, but allows for the charge to be dismissed if treatment is completed. As well, police could first offer those found in possession the option of agreeing to treatment or being referred for charges. Courts would also vacate convictions upon successful completion of treatment.

Importantly, the legislation also includes provisions and funding to increase access to treatment, in particular a requirement that opioid and other drug treatment programs, clinics and recovery residences would be recognized as essential public services, requiring local governments to consider conditional use requirements for them the same as for other health care facilities.

The legislation also outlines about $55 million in spending in the coming two-year budget to fund expanded opioid treatment medication in jails, crisis relief centers throughout the state, the state Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program and grants for a jail alternatives program.

Some who opposed the bill hold that criminalizing addiction and imposing jail time won’t help those suffering from a disease. But the intention of the legislation isn’t to put more people into jails, but to get more people into treatment. As police and social workers who are among those most in contact with those with addiction have observed, handing them a referral does not provide enough persuasion to seek treatment.

Breaking addiction’s hold on individuals and the fear of withdrawal can require more than mere appeals to common sense.

“Nobody wants to throw a bunch of people in jail,” Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring told The Herald Editorial Board before the start of the legislative session. “But unfortunately the state of mind for most of these individuals is that without the threat of some form of punishment, they almost never take treatment.”

While Washington state ranks among the nation’s lower two-fifths of the country for overdose deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it has seen overdose deaths and their rates increase markedly since 2016, in particular for fentanyl. A total of 1,102 state residents died of overdoses in 2016, a rate of 14.5 deaths per 100,000 residents; that rose in 2020 to 1,733 deaths and a rate of 22 deaths per 100,000 residents. More recent data show that overdose deaths surpassed 2,000 in 2021.

As it did in the Senate, the legislation is likely to face a philosophical divide in the House, particularly among Democrats. Robinson was realistic that the bill is likely to see amendments as it moves forward. But the basics of the bill — leverage to persuade those with addictions to seek treatment and increased funding and access for that treatment — should be preserved as the best resolution toward breaking the current deadly march of overdose deaths.

The Daily Herald Editorial Board is represented by Publisher Rudi Alcott, Opinion Page Editor Jon Bauer and Executive Editor Phillip O’Connor.

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