Can Washington’s New Drug Policy Improve Access to Addiction Treatment?

Olympia, Washington
Photo by George Dodd III/

Washington is piloting a legal process by which people who misuse drugs and alcohol will hopefully find it easier to seek and receive qualified treatment. However, the Washington legislation stopped short of decriminalizing drug possession or use, attempting to walk a fine line between increasing available resources for drug addicts without simultaneously endorsing or accepting drug use as a legal activity.

Details of New Bipartisan Drug Policy in Washington State

In May of 2023, bipartisan efforts in Washington’s Statehouse saw legislators agree to pass a new drug policy that avoided making the state the second in the nation (after Oregon) to decriminalize the possession of controlled substances. Under the new legislation, the possession or use of small amounts of illegal drugs would be a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail.

However, the new legislation also has language strongly encouraging police and prosecutors to divert cases to treatment or other behavioral health services rather than jail. Further, the legislation provides $44 million in additional dollars for diversion programs and short-term housing for people with substance use disorders. While the actual possession and use of drugs is still a crime in Washington, the new drug policy encourages and incentivizes law enforcement and prosecutors to assist addicts in getting help rather than jailing and punishing them.

Drug court

According to legislators, the new policy strikes a strong compromise between compassion and accountability. Representative Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, called it “a fair compromise that addresses urgent concerns about public disorder but follows evidence-based practices in helping people in need.” 

On the other side of the aisle, Representative Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia, agreed the new policy was a step in the right direction. However, more work needs to be done to ensure the state of Washington can help the addicts who will soon go through the new system. “The state of Washington is a decade behind in having treatment providers and having adequate bed space and treatment facilities,” Abbarno said. “Even when we pass this policy, we’re still not going to see an immediate drop in crime or substance abuse because we don’t have the workforce development and infrastructure to deal with the off-ramps that this bill creates.” Abbarno also highlighted previous years when Washington policymakers and public health officials pressed for diversion and treatment over incarceration, indicating how the state was woefully underprepared then as well to treat addicts through effective rehabilitation programs.

If Washington can ramp up its efforts to provide treatment facilities, bed space, counselors, health providers, and the needed infrastructure to treat the thousands of Washingtonians struggling with addiction, the new policy measure could be a compelling blueprint for how other states might tackle the current issues of drug addiction, drug use as a crime, and the dire need for treatment.

Fast Action Must be Taken to Ensure Those Who Need Help can Access It

All of this comes on the heels of new data from the University of Washington showing fentanyl as a rapidly growing problem in the state. According to a university research project, fentanyl and fentanyl seizures were up in Washington in the first quarter of 2023. Fentanyl also appears more frequently in crime lab cases and drug-related arrests.

According to the same university, drug-related deaths in Washington began spiking in 2019, a trend that continued in 2020, 2021, and 2022. Synthetic opioids, namely fentanyl, accounted for more deaths than all other drugs combined except heroin deaths, which also spiked considerably. Washington has about 41,000 to 44,000 individuals who are either actively seeking treatment, enrolled in treatment, have said they needed treatment in the past, or have been directed to seek treatment as an alternative to jail time.

Doctor holds hands

Given the rapid increase in fentanyl use in the state and the resulting spikes in overdoses and deaths, Washington’s new legislation must be rapidly implemented. The $44 million set aside for diversion programs, treatment, and housing must be utilized as soon as possible, or thousands of addicts in the state will be left with no treatment resources. If you know someone in Washington who is struggling with an addiction to drugs and alcohol, use the new legislation as a way to help your loved one enter treatment without fear of repercussions. Please don’t wait until it is too late for them.

Sources Cited:

  • AP. “New Washington Law Keeps Drugs Illegal, Boosts Resources for Housing and Treatment.” Associated Press, 2023.
  • USNews. “Washington Lawmakers Reach Deal on Drug Policy, Avoid Automatic Decriminalization.” U.S. News, 2023.
  • UW. “New and Emerging Drugs in State Crime Lab Evidence: Quarter 1 & 2 2023.” University of Washington, 2023.
  • UW. “Drug-caused Deaths Across Washington State.” University of Washington, 2023.



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.