Drug reform advocates have launched ballot initiative 1922, which will decriminalize possession of drugs and direct a portion of revenue from cannabis taxes to fund drug treatment and rehabilitation.
Organizers are collecting signatures for the initiative and are confident that it will qualify for the November ballot.
The effort is spearheaded by a coalition called Commit to Change WA, which is bankrolled by the ACLU of Washington. According to filings with the state Public Disclosure Commission, the ACLU of Washington has donated more than $1.35 million to the campaign. Other endorsers include the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, East African Community Services, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, and a number of other nonprofit organizations.
Planning for the initiative started in 2020. Proponents hoped to mimic efforts in Portugal and the Netherlands, where policymakers decriminalized drug possession and pivoted toward a public health approach to drugs. In February 2021, the Washington Supreme Court gave the decriminalization movement a boost when it ruled that the state law that criminalizes drug possession was unconstitutional. The state legislature subsequently re-criminalized possession, albeit in a more limited manner.
I-1922 will strike sections of the state law that criminalize possession of controlled substances and authorize the state to increase funding for drug treatment and research. According to the campaign, the initiative will divert $141 million in annual cannabis tax revenue toward substance disorder prevention, treatment and recovery. In 2021, the state made $559.5 million in cannabis revenue, $191 million of which went to the state general fund.
The initiative does not address the sale or manufacture of controlled drugs, which will remain illegal. It also authorizes law enforcement agencies to seize any drugs they discover.
Proponents of the initiative hope that it will help communities ravaged by the war on drugs and opioid crisis to recover. Deaunte Damper, a community organizer with VOCAL Washington, which stands for Voices of Community Activists and Leaders, said that the War on Drugs has prevented the implementation of treatment for drug addiction.
“The system has not been in place because of the language of war on drugs,” Damper said. “It has plagued my community; it has broken up families.
“We have to be able to [think about] … the wellness to our community members that isolate [themselves] through usage, and how do we continue to show up for them,” he said. “This initiative is wellness.”
Jan Bolerjack, a pastor and a director of the Tukwila school district, sits on the steering committee for Commit to Change WA. According to Bolerjack, the initiative aims to treat drugs as a public health matter.
“What we’re trying to do is put substance use disorder as a health issue and not a criminal issue,” Bolerjack said. “And so, to decriminalize small amounts, individual user amounts, helps us to look at it from a health perspective.”
Drug addiction and criminalization has a deep impact on communities across Washington state. Black and Indigenous people are disproportionately more likely to be arrested for drug possession in the state. According to the Department of Health, more than 2,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2021.
Ben Stuckart — another steering committee member and former city council president of Spokane — said that community members have to decide whether they want to continue to invest in the racist criminal legal system.
“I think we need to really, you know, as a community have that conversation about what we want for our community in the future,” Stuckart said. “Is it the highest incarceration rates in the world that are biased towards those BIPOC members of our community, or do we want a community that uses treatment as a solution and funds that, and then lets individuals act as individuals, instead of putting them as part of a racist system?”
Read more of the May 25-31, 2022 issue.