Historic Drug Policy Reform Passes in Washington State

Press Release April 2, 2002
Media Contact

Tony Newman at 510-208-7711

Olympia – In the past week, Washington has adopted significant drug policy reform legislation that will begin to shift the state’s approach from law enforcement to public health and harm reduction. On Monday, Governor Gary Locke signed into law a measure that will significantly expand treatment and shorten sentences for non-violent offenders.

The new legislation will allow for expanded community-based treatment and the restoration of broader sentencing discretion to judges. Policies that favor treatment instead of incarceration have proven to be effective in other states. While this new law is much like California’s Proposition 36, it goes even further by reducing sentences for low-level drug sales-Washington’s most common drug offense-in addition to possession. This recognizes that many people sell drugs as a result of their own addiction.

“These are significant first steps for us in Washington State,” said Andrew Ko, director of the Drug Policy Reform Project at the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. “During the next few years we will be working toward even more fundamental reform. The people of Washington and our elected officials know that we can not continue to accept the tragedies and miserable failures of the drug war.”

Drug offenders make up more than 20 percent of Washington’s state prison population. As is the case with many states across the country, Washington faces a $1.6 billion budget shortfall this year. Future savings for taxpayers will reach tens of millions of dollars in the next few years, as incarceration costs average ten times as much as treatment.

“When it comes to getting smarter on drug policy, it’s Washington State, not Washington, D.C., that’s providing the national leadership these days,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of Drug Policy Alliance. “New York, New Jersey and other states with drug laws in desperate need of reform should take heed.”

The drug sentencing reform law follows on the heels of the state’s decriminalization of the sale and possession of syringes. Last Thursday, Governor Locke signed into law a bill that will curb the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C by making sterile syringes more available for injection drug users.

“This legislation will save lives,” said Glenn Backes, director of health policy for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Studies have shown that providing clean needles reduces the risk of AIDS without increasing drug use.”

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

Sign up for updates from DPA.