Michael Wagar Commentary: The State Should Use Pot Tax to Fund More Drug Treatment

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The state Supreme Court ruling on Feb. 25 that simple drug possession is no longer a felony had Lewis County scrambling for answers, but for now, there is a pause in local deliberations over the issue.

In a surprising 5-4 vote, the state Supreme Court in State vs. Blake ruled arrests for simple drug possession are unconstitutional. The ruling is interpreted as being retroactive, allowing for thousands of citizens to be freed from jail and waiving other requirements such as mandatory treatment. Even past fines are being readied to be repaid to those convicted of simple possession going back several decades. It also would require courts, including those in Lewis County, to go back through thousands of cases involving simple drug possession to reset sentences.

Followers of the court called the ruling “stunning,” “sweeping,” “difficult,” and with “enormous workload and cost consequences.”

The ruling does not address consequences, let alone how to fill a glowering funding gap in treatment for those suffering from drug addiction.

On Tuesday, the Lewis County Commissioners, as detailed in a Chronicle story by reporter Claudia Yaw, reversed their earlier intent to buck the Supreme Court ruling and pass an ordinance to re-criminalize drug possession.

The commissioners reasoned it appears the state Legislature will address gaping holes brought forth from the ruling during this year’s session. Democrats have majorities in the state House and Senate, and also hold the Governor’s Mansion. If they want, they can make adjustments to the ruling. They have already sprung into action.

Democratic state leaders want to keep the decriminalization of simple drug possession, but also want to add treatment options. One proposal would have Washingtonians over age 21 found with small amounts of illegal drugs guilty of a gross misdemeanor.

They would then be referred to drug treatment and other services. The proposal would also fund required efforts under the Blake ruling such as retroactive payment of fines and the high cost of resetting sentences.

Offering sober housing, for example, could help the chronic homelessness problem across the state. Right now, in Lewis County, there is a lack of needed drug treatment options.

State Republicans counter that “tough love” is a better answer and that many addicts first get treatment after being arrested, convicted and jailed.

Those jailed, however, face an uphill climb. Once jailed debts increase, and once released, they have hurdles to gaining unemployment. It can often be near impossible to land a job with a felony conviction on record. All too often, people saddled with a felony conviction fall into a depressing circle of returning to drug use and committing petty crime.

I firmly believe those suffering from addictions generally don’t recover until they are ready to put their demons behind. If drug addicts are not ready to quit, mandatory sentencing of treatment services is doomed to fail.

Voters in the state of Oregon passed a measure by a wide margin (58 percent in favor) last fall decriminalizing drug possession. It also funds treatment services, paid for by a marijuana tax.

Washington state is limited in using the marijuana tax to pay for drug treatment, because the voter approved measure to legalize pot has more than half of the tax collected dollars allocated to set public programs.

The marijuana tax in Washington state is a growing cash cow. The state is forecast to rake in more than $1 billion in the pot sales tax for the upcoming two-year budget cycle. Of that cash, almost half goes to fund the state’s Basic Health Plan Trust Account at $590 million. Another $150 million is earmarked for everything from community health centers that provide services to the poor lacking health insurance, licensing and enforcement of pot sales, the State Patrol and other public health services that prevent and reduce drug use.

That leaves about a half billion dollars with the majority going into the state general fund at $369 million.

I propose using that relatively new tax to not help the state general fund, but for expanded treatment programs, from more shelters to walk-in clinics, community based intervention programs such as Lewis County’s Drug Court, and also mental health help.

The state Democrats all too often grab new taxes such as the pot tax to fund pet projects.

Homelessness fueled by chronic drug use needs dedicated funds. The marijuana tax is a good place to start.

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Michael Wagar is a former president, publisher and editor of The Chronicle.

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