Seattle talks about decriminalizing all drugs

Seattle Task Force on Overdoses Recommends City Decriminalize All Drugs

The Seattle City Council recently asked for policy advice on how to curb overdose deaths, and a local task force has recommended the widespread decriminalization of all drugs, pointing out that psychedelics, in particular, show promise as a treatment to help address substance abuse disorders and mental health issues.

The group concluded that removing penalties around controlled substances — or even legalizing and regulating them — would “create opportunities for research and access to a regulated safe supply in a manner that is safest for everyone in the community.”

The call to decriminalize is one of five policy recommendations unveiled this week by the Overdose Emergency Innovative Recovery (OEIR) task force, convened and led by the organization VOCAL-WA and other community organizers. Among the other proposals are expanding housing and treatment and harm reduction services, as well as efforts to reduce social stigma around substance use disorders.

Unlearning drug war propaganda of the last century will take time and patience,” the group said in a summary document. “It will take an all hands on deck effort to end the stigmatization and harm that more than a century of prohibition has caused.

Overdose Emergency Innovative Recovery task force 

The policy recommendations come roughly three months after a majority of members of the Seattle City Council signed a letter asking the task force to investigate the potential therapeutic value of psychedelics such as ayahuasca or ibogaine in curbing addiction. Council members urged the group to “add to their work plan an examination of public policy governing psychedelic medicines.”

A more detailed list of recommendations is expected from the task force later this year, organizers said. It will then be up to the council to decide whether to enact policy changes in response to the group’s findings.

With respect to psychedelics, the summary states, “municipalities, in the state of Washington and elsewhere, that have an independent ordinance criminalizing psychedelics should repeal them, and those that don’t should direct their law enforcement agencies, local prosecutors and municipal courts to deprioritize enforcement and should publicly communicate this as municipal policy.”

State and federal officials “should move to decriminalize these substances and broaden access to psychedelic therapy,” the task force recommended. “This would safeguard psychedelic treatment as a potential treatment avenue.”

The task force says there’s ample evidence that access to psychedelic therapy could help address the ongoing overdose epidemic. “For example, psychedelic compounds have recently regained a reputation as an emerging therapy with effectiveness for substance use disorder,” it says, “and comorbid psychiatric disorders such as major depressive disorder, and post traumatic stress disorder. However, the full benefits cannot be recognized within the current prohibition based system that we have.”

Calling the drug war a “racist and antiquated legal doctrine,” the group said legalizing drugs would not only improve safety and reduce stigma but could also be a potential moneymaker for the state. “Evidence suggests that all drugs will be safer under a legalization model and provide potentially billions of dollars in revenue to governments, like lotteries.”

The group also cautioned drug reform measures should preserve space for ceremonial and religious use by Indigenous groups. “Any legal measures or sanctioning psychedelics must prioritize indigenous rituals of the Americas, Africa, and other continents,” the document says. “Often their ways of life are threatened by overharvesting and Western encroachment. These cultures have utilized these compounds since time immemorial in healing and spiritual practice.”

One issue not specifically mentioned in the newly released recommendations summary is the establishment of safe consumption spaces — facilities where people could use drugs in a medically supervised, hygienic setting. The policy, which has been suggested by Seattle advocates in years past but has not gained traction, is currently the lead issue on VOCAL-WA’s website. It’s not clear if the issue will be addressed when the task force’s full recommendation document is released.

Decrim Nature Seattle (DNS), a local advocacy group that supports ending the prohibition of plant-based psychedelics, praised the task force’s recommendations.

“The growing body of research shows psychedelics can be an effective therapy for [substance use disorder] and mental health issues,” Tatiana Quintana, DNS’s co-director and a member of the OEIR task force, said. “These alternative medicines are direly needed alternatives, and at DNS, we are working to ensure that plant based psychedelics are responsibly integrated into our communities and remain as accessible as possible for our residents health and wellbeing.”

Mason Marks, the director of Harvard Law School’s Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation and a member of Oregon’s official state advisory board for that state’s psilocybin therapy program, called the recommendations “an important step for Seattle to help address its overdose and mental health crisis. The city council can now act confidently on this timely, evidence based recommendation.”

DNS is hoping to convince the city council to pass an ordinance that would effectively decriminalize psychedelics in the city. Organizers submitted a draft ordinance in May and are urging council members to take action on it.

Like much of the rest of the country, Washington state is contemplating major changes in how it treats drug use. Earlier this year, lawmakers considered legislation that would have removed all penalties for possession of relatively small, “personal use” amounts of drugs and instead invested in treatment and recovery services. While that bill died in committee, lawmakers from both parties acknowledged at the time that the state’s drug control apparatus was broken.

Shortly thereafter, the state Supreme Court overturned Washington’s felony law against drug possession, sending lawmakers scrambling to replace the law. Ultimately they approved a modest reform, reducing the state’s felony charge for drug possession to a misdemeanor and earmarking more money for treatment.

Jurisdictions across the country are increasingly removing or reducing penalties around drug possession and consumption, especially when it comes to psychedelics. Since Denver became the first U.S. city to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in 2019, a number of states and municipalities have made similar changes to dismantle the drug war.

This piece is a part of a content sharing arrangement between The News Station and Marijuana Moment.

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor. He has covered cannabis as a journalist since 2011, most recently as a senior news editor for Leafly.

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor. He has covered cannabis as a journalist since 2011, most recently as a senior news editor for Leafly.

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