Washington State’s $125 Million Drug War Restitution Plan Is Only a Start

February 11, 2022

Washington Governor Jay Inslee (D) wants to invest $125 million each year, funded by cannabis tax revenue, into communities most targeted by the drug war. It’s an official recognition of the harms of decades of anti-drug enforcement. But how and where the money is spent will make all the difference. And prohibition of most drugs remains intact, for now.

Inslee released his $62 billion 2022 supplemental budget proposal on December 16, 2021. It will need to be approved by the state legislature, which is in regular session until March 10.

The proposed Community Reinvestment Fund would focus on reducing poverty, vacating criminal convictions, violence prevention, and reentry services to help people released from incarceration.

Disproportionately Impacted Areas, include those with high rates of poverty, unemployment, or arrests and incarceration for marijuana charges, among other criteria.

If approved, the state would immediately start giving out money through existing programs, while putting together a study group to determine the best way to provide funding to communities going forward. RaShelle Davis, a senior policy adviser to Inslee, told Crosscut that the funds would be given to “Disproportionately Impacted Areas” across the state, until further research is done.

Disproportionately Impacted Areas, as defined by the state, include those with high rates of poverty, unemployment, or arrests and incarceration for marijuana charges, among other criteria.

Washington was the first US state to legalize adult-use cannabis in 2012, along with Colorado. According to the ACLU, legalization has dramatically reduced the cannabis-possession arrest rate, from a peak of nearly 200 arrests per 100,000 people annually to less than 40 by 2018.

But it hasn’t eliminated racist cannabis enforcement. Black residents remain more than twice as likely as white residents to be arrested for cannabis possession. And that’s just the statewide average—racial disparities are far worse in many areas of the state. Black residents are over nine times likelier than whites to be arrested for possession in Whatcom County, for example.

The same ACLU report shows that cannabis legalization had little effect on other drug arrests in the state: These actually ticked up slightly between 2012-2018. So it’s notable that Inslee is proposing restitution for drug war enforcement while not actually repealing the policies that still fuel it.

But change may be coming. In February 2021, Washington’s Supreme Court effectively decriminalized drug possession by finding current felony drug laws unconstitutional. Three months later, state lawmakers and Governor Inslee passed legislation reinstating criminal penalties for drug possession, but only at a misdemeanor level. That law also tries to divert people to health assessment and treatment on their first two violations. And with an eye to revisiting the issue, lawmakers set the criminal penalty provision to expire on July 1, 2023.

Not content to rely on that possibility, advocates have now filed and finalized a proposed decriminalization ballot initiative that would remove criminal penalties for simple possession and fund the expansion of substance use disorder treatment and other services, similarly to neighboring Oregon. If activists can gather enough signatures, that will be put to voters in November. 

“There’s a lot of collateral damage, whether you’re checking the box for a job, your foregoing of assistance for education or welfare, and the disruption of your life.”

The state estimated in 2021 that over 13,500 people who were currently or formerly incarcerated for simple drug possession are eligible for relief, including vacating convictions or re-sentencing, because of the Supreme Court decision.

But the Seattle Clemency Project found a much larger number: over 126,000 people who were convicted in Washington since 1999, including those who weren’t incarcerated. Using this data, the Washington Defender Association found that Black men and women, Native American men, and men coded as “other” races are impacted most harshly by drug possession convictions.

Vidal Vincent was convicted on two possession charges in Washington, and served 18 years of a 30-year prison sentence. Because of the Supreme Court decision, he was re-sentenced and immediately released. Now a volunteer on the board of Freedom Project, he shared with Filter his thoughts on the need for drug war restitution in his state.

“They used this law as blunt force to over-enforce and surveil our communities,” he said, “and tag everyone with these drug possessions. There’s a lot of collateral damage behind this, whether you’re checking the box for a job, your foregoing of assistance for education or welfare, and the disruption of your life.”

Vincent said that the state owes a debt to Black communities like his own, adding that $125 million annually is far too little. But no matter how much money is reinvested, he urged that it go directly to the people and families impacted by drug arrests.

“It’s going to take us always taking initiative.”

“The reality is,” he said, “when this money gets allocated you already got interests in the nonprofit industrial complex and other individuals who are not impacted who are going to take this money and so-called talk about their helping impacted people, and they’re going to line their pockets. It’s going to take us always taking initiative.”

Of course, communities like Vincent’s face far more than just targeted drug enforcement. A 2021 report commissioned by the Washington Supreme Court found persistent racial inequities in police stops, searches, arrests, convictions, fines and sentencing for all crimes, with Black, Indigenous and Latinx communities targeted the worst. The same applies to police violence and killings.

It all goes to show the challenges of drug war restitution in Washington. Racist drug enforcement—and the broader inequities of the criminal-legal system—have left a permanent mark on Washington’s Black and Brown communities, among others. Ending criminal drug penalties and getting everyone out of jail should be the immediate goal, but it doesn’t end there.

Vacating people’s criminal records, as Inslee has also proposed, is another important step. As is compensating drug war victims for all the time and money they lost. That will take far more than $125 million a year.



Photograph of Seattle police car by Can Pac Swire via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0.

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is Filter's staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it's actually alright. He's also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter's editorial fellow.

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