House Committee Amends Senate Bill to Create Comprehensive System for Drug Treatment and Possession

The House Community Safety, Justice & Reentry Committee passed an amended version of SB 5536, a bill ensuring access to pre-trial diversion, funding treatment and recovery services, and creating a more effective response to the substance use crisis, today. The bill is the Legislature’s proposal to address the 2021 Washington Supreme Court Blake decision, which found Washington’s strict liability law for drug possession unconstitutional. Following that ruling, the Legislature declined to return to a felony for possession model, instead choosing to build a system focused on access to treatment and recovery. Given the timeframe of the 2021 decision, that bill included a sunset of its provisions in June of this year as well as the establishment of the Substance Use Recovery Services Advisory Committee (SURSAC). It made possession a simple misdemeanor while mandating two pre-arrest referrals to services by law enforcement. This year’s legislation will set the penalty for possession while implementing many of SURSAC’s recommendations to ease barriers to treatment and establish modern pathways to recovery. The bill passed the House Community Safety, Justice, & Reentry (CSJR) Committee with a bipartisan vote of 6-3.

“Our goal with this bill is to recognize the urgent public health problem that substance use disorder represents and focus our resources on getting people into treatment and recovery,” said Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, Chair of the House CSJR Committee. “I am encouraged about the comprehensive nature of this response. It ramps up recovery support that is proven to work, builds out low-barrier access to treatment and recovery supports, and provides accountability with plenty of offramps to treatment. The heart of this bill is recognizing that fundamentally this is a public health problem with a public health response while still giving communities tools to ensure community safety.”

SB 5536 establishes a pretrial diversion program for persons charged with possession. If the defendant is determined to have Substance Use Disorder (SUD), they would be required to complete the recommended treatment program after which the court must dismiss the charges. While repealing the previous requirement that law enforcement refers a person to services prior to arrest, the bill establishes a grant program to expand Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), the highly successful pre-arrest diversion program.

Recognizing the need for expanded treatment options and programs in every part of the state, the bill takes several steps to ensure that there is an adequate supply of both providers and facilities. It creates a grant program to fund educational and employment opportunities for people recovering from SUD, who often go on to be the most effective service providers. Additionally, it cuts red tape for treatment facilities and creates a fund to pay for their construction in underserved areas. It also requires the Health Care Authority (HCA) to fund the establishment of an adequate number of recovery residences across the state and exempts any property being used as a recovery residence from property taxes from 2024 through 2033.

The Recovery Navigator program, which was established in the 2021 bill, is strengthened by the addition of a data integration platform to develop best practices. HCA is also directed to develop payment structures for Health Engagement Hubs to serve as all-in-one locations where a person who uses drugs can access a range of services including high-quality medical care like wound care, harm reduction supplies, referrals or access to methadone, and linkages to housing treatment, and transportation services. The goal will be to have all Washington communities within two hours of a health engagement hub. By leading with care and support, these hubs can serve as an access point for people to begin their journey to recovery.

Powerful testimony from the House hearing on SB 5536 came from Pastor Cole Meckle, the pastor of Gather Church and Community Services in Lewis County, which is also the designated Recovery Navigator for that county: “Our low barrier approach meets people where they are, peels through the layers of shame, builds relationships of trust, and seeks to make the most out of every opportunity when someone imagines and hopes that they could live a better life… One client’s story is of an individual in his late forties. The only real recovery in his adult life was two years in prison and incarceration and criminalization ultimately has not resulted in long term recovery for him. What has though, is the help of the Recovery Navigator Program and the health support teams. He now has eight months of recovery. He has obtained his driver’s license and insurance for the first time in his adult life. The first time he has had stable housing as well. He is also employed and offered advancements and training and promotions. His life is beginning to thrive. And this has come as the result of desire being met with accessible opportunities for case management, health care, counseling, and treatment services.”

The amended version makes several changes from the version of the bill that passed the Senate. It removes a series of escalating jail sentences that could be imposed for not “substantially complying” with treatment and retains a simple misdemeanor as the penalty for possession as opposed to the gross misdemeanor passed by the Senate. In acknowledgment of one of the most harmful aspects of our substance use disorder crisis, it adds public use as an additional crime that can be charged with possession.

“As the only member of this body with a Blake conviction, I can tell you that it was not our prison system that helped get me into recovery,” said Rep. Tarra Simmons, D-Bremerton, Vice Chair of the House CSJR Committee and the first formerly incarcerated state Representative in Washington’s history. “The fact is that in almost every case jail harms recovery. It cuts a person off from their support systems, often leads to a loss of housing and employment, and does not treat or solve SUD. The bill we passed out of CSJR recognizes the modern nature of recovery and works to build systems that offer people services, support, connection, and community. Recovery is not a box that you can tick after going to one treatment program, but a difficult journey. Our community is worth it. We are worth it. When we reach out a hand to help, people can heal, but that does not happen in jail.”

The bill also addresses the collateral consequences that a conviction can have on a person’s housing, employment, and educational opportunities, by requiring the automatic vacation of any possession conviction upon proof that a person has successfully completed a treatment program.

SB 5536 now heads to the House Appropriations Committee.