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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: As lawmakers look to fix drug law, range of priorities collide

As state lawmakers go back to work on the state’s drug-possession law, there will be a philosophical tug-of-war: Do we need a bigger legal hammer or more robust addiction treatment?

Will we frame drug use chiefly as a crime or a health problem?

Local lawmakers at a public forum this week expressed optimism that comprehensive, bipartisan legislation to address both the criminal justice and the addiction recovery ends of the spectrum will be within reach when they return to Olympia this winter.

But it won’t be possible to eliminate the core, conflicting views of how we should treat simple drug possession, and perhaps the most significant either-or will be whether to keep it a misdemeanor or bring back a felony possession charge – if not for initial offenses, then perhaps for later ones.

The misdemeanor-felony divide was on view at the forum Wednesday night at the downtown library, focused on the need for the Legislature to follow up on the Washington Supreme Court’s 2021 Blake decision.

In that case – which originated in Spokane – the justices invalidated the state’s drug possession law because it unconstitutionally penalized people who might unknowingly possess drugs. The Legislature rushed to pass a quick Blake fix last session, but it left no one happy.

The replacement law did not simply fix the “unknowingly” gap – it made drug possession a misdemeanor, rather than the Class C felony it had been, and it required police to direct offenders to treatment on the first and second offenses.

It was a significant step away from the hammer approach, to put it mildly.

Sen. Andy Billig, the Spokane Democrat, organized the discussion, which included Police Chief Craig Meidl, Superior Court Judge Harold Clarke, Public Defender Francis Adewale and Dan Sigler, regional director of Pioneer Human Services. Reps. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, and Mike Volz, R-Spokane, were also on the panel.

Meidl offered a range of statistics about crime increases and overdose deaths in the past year, and said that drug use is driving increases in property crimes as well as the kinds of “crimes of disorder” that are often mentioned in discussions of homelessness – people being accosted on the streets by drug users, open drug use on the sidewalks, an instance of someone “pulling down their drawers in the middle of the street” in front of families.

He said he believed a felony charge should be returned to the statute as a consequence to encourage change, if not for initial offenses then for repeat charges.

A push to recriminalize drug possession runs strongly among many of those who see the best answer to homelessness as a jail cell. But the insufficiency of this response is deep and thorough, and if you view the current increase in certain crimes in Spokane as only the result of the Blake changes, then it’s hard to explain why current crime reports are lower than they were in 2017 and 2018.

As a practical matter, the scourge of addiction, especially given the intensely addictive and dangerous nature of the synthetic opioid crisis, requires a broader, more sophisticated response than a criminal charge, as several panelists laid out with great clarity.

“This is a public health issue and we need to take that approach,” said Clarke, who presides over Spokane County’s felony mental health court.

Adelwalde, the public defender who is a mainstay in Spokane’s community court, argued for a compassionate response for those addicted to drugs, and for improving our system for helping them recover – not for excessively criminalizing a health problem in ways that make it harder for people to get sober and find work and housing.

“What I don’t see is going back to felonizing these drug offenses,” he said. “It’s too much.”

In the absence of other crimes, he said, hanging a felony around the neck of someone with a substance abuse disorder – only for drug possession – makes it less likely they will recover.

“Let’s see the humanity in each other,” he said. “I don’t have any sympathy for drug dealers or drug manufacturers. I don’t care about them. But for drug users? Let’s look at them from the point of view of humanity. … Let’s look at this as a disease we need to cure.”

Other panelists talked about the lack of treatment resources and counselors, especially if a new law puts a premium on systems that direct people charged with drug possession toward treatment and recovery.

After all, as Clarke noted, almost everyone who goes to jail or prison is released at some point. And as Sigler said, most people who are addicted to drugs eventually get healthy – but it’s common to relapse along that road.

“Recovery takes time and people are going to relapse,” he said. “That needs to inform what we support.”

For these reasons, and others, targeting the system toward helping people get – and stay – sober, is important, including eliminating gaps in services where people might backslide.

Adelwade said we think of treatment as a “magic wand.”

“But if you finish treatment and go back on the street, your chances of success are reduced,” he said.

The degree to which the Blake fix will address all of these priorities remains to be seen. The sausage must still be made, and lawmakers are sure to get an earful from folks who want more hammer. But the panelists, taken together, made it clear that it isn’t a one-tool job.

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