The War on Drugs has failed. We all know it. The opioid crisis has made it abundantly clear that criminalizing addiction does nothing to curb it. The laws need to catch up with this societal knowledge. Treatment First Washington hopes to accomplish this.

Initiative 1715 

Initiative 1715, the Washington Expand Substance Use Disorder Treatment Programs Initiative, was put forth by Treatment First Washington, a subgroup of the ACLU. If the initiative gathers enough signatures, it will be on the ballot in November. The proposed initiative aims to decriminalize drug possession in small amounts. But there is much more to it than that.

“Expand [the] availability of and facilitate access to effective, health-based approaches to the substance use disorder crisis facing our state,” The initiative reads. “Funded by existing marijuana taxes and health insurance, and to direct people with substance use disorder to treatment and recovery services.”

But the bill goes far beyond decriminalizing use, and into treating the issue at hand. 

The initiative reads:

Through the adoption of this substance use disorder treatment, recovery, and education act, the state will: 

  • Expand treatment, recovery, and education services with redirected marijuana taxes; 
  • Increase the availability and accessibility of educational information regarding substance use disorders and how to get help;  
  • Help those with substance use disorders access treatment and recovery services through law enforcement training;
  • Changing laws regarding drug possession and use so that persons cited for personal use offenses are referred to mandatory service assessments rather than charged with a crime;
  • And facilitating vacation of convictions for past possession and use offenses to remove the barriers these criminal records erect to long-term recovery.

The Initiative was filed by Peter Danelo, a retired attorney. The ACLU is also backing the bill, and ACLU Political Director Allison Holcomb has publicly supported the initiative. Holcomb authored Initiative-502.

The Sesh reached out to representatives from Treatment First Washington and did not receive a statement. 


LEAD, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) is a project of the Public Defender Association. The LEAD program is doing work that is similar to what I-1715 hopes to make mandatory.

LEAD works with law enforcement in King and Snohomish Counties, as well as elsewhere in Washington and throughout the country. Its goal is to keep people in active addiction from being arrested for minor possession. 

Mission Overlap

Because of its association with LEAD, and its working knowledge of the justice system, The Sesh reached out to the Public Defender Association regarding its thoughts on the initiative.

“Using criminal penalties to deal with drug use has done immense harm,” the Public Defender Association wrote in a statement. “Compounded by the longstanding and intense racial disparity in enforcement patterns locally and nationally.  We understand and respect that the ACLU-WA wants to lodge a big win in the battle to dismantle the War on Drugs.” 

Despite similar intentions, however, the Public Defender Association is critical of I-1715’s approach.

Different Approach

The Public Defender Association detailed its reservations about the initiative’s approach.

“Based on our daily work on the ground to reverse the damage done by the War on Drugs, we have doubts that the initiative’s approach is the right road,” the statement read. “We see the initiative as leaving most who are currently going to jail still fully vulnerable to jail and prosecution–criminal penalties would remain for failing to comply with a referral to treatment, and for low-level drug delivery.  This flows from the fact that this initiative doesn’t actually legalize drugs–it just shifts where the criminal penalties would be imposed.”

The Public Defender Association praised I-502 for covering the entire supply chain, not just the end-users. That approach benefitted those most adversely affected by drug prohibition, Black and brown people, according to the statement from the Public Defender Association.

“We need to take the same approach to other drugs,” the statement explains. “Lest people of color continue to bear the brunt of a criminalized distribution process, while end-users, including affluent recreational users, are in the clear.”

Additionally, the Public Defender Association pointed out some other issues it identified with the initiative:

  • Criminal penalties for not complying with mandatory treatment would put poor people at risk of acquiring civil legal debt.
  • Initiatives are unchangeable for two years after passing. And with COVID-19 creating record unemployment and loss of insurance, not being able to adapt legislation is problematic.
  • Meeting the basic needs of people suffering from drug addiction needs to be at the center of drug reform policy for it to be effective. 
Same Goal, Different Ideas

Finally, the Public Defender Association knows the ACLU and the Public Defender Association share the same big picture goals.

“We have long partnered with the ACLU-WA on drug policy reform, and respect their commitment to these issues,” the statement reads.  “Whether I-1715 qualifies for the ballot or not, we will look for opportunities to work with them on the many efforts on which we have a common interest, including drug policy issues and implementation of I-1715, should it pass.”

The Future of Initiative 1715

Initiative 1715 will need to gather 259,622 valid signatures to appear on the November 2020 ballot. The deadline to gather those signatures is July 2.

In the best circumstances, gathering enough signatures to get a controversial initiative on the ballot can be a challenge. Adding to the difficulty, COVID-19 has halted in-person signature gathering for now. So the month of June will be a make or break time for the future of Initiative 1715. 


Image courtesy of Rehab Center Parus /CC BY-SA