Padden says Washington’s drug-overdose crisis is now among worst in U.S.

New statistics from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show Washington’s fatal drug-overdose situation is even grimmer than a month ago, says Sen. Mike Padden, the lead Republican on the Senate Law and Justice Committee.

For the third straight month, the CDC has issued a report that finds Washington having the negative distinction of seeing the fastest drug-overdose death rate increase of any state in the country.

But, according to the latest CDC report, Washington now leads the country not just in the percentage increase in deaths, but also the number of increased deaths (688 more than in the prior 12-month period).

“Washington’s drug crisis continues to worsen, with this latest news from the CDC really underscoring how serious it has become,” said Padden, R-Spokane Valley. “When there are nearly 700 more drug-overdose deaths than the previous year, it is clear our state’s approach to drug use has not worked. More must be done to combat drug use and overdoses, including tougher punishment for using hard drugs, before even more lives are lost.”

The full CDC report can be viewed here.

According to the CDC, Washington has seen a nation-leading 28.4% increase in drug-overdose deaths between March 2022 and March 2023 (up from 23.9% for the period between February 2022 and February 2023). Oregon ranks second at 19.6%, followed by Nevada (19%) and Alabama (14%). The national average is a miniscule 0.1% increase.

The recent CDC figures illustrate the effect of Washington’s decriminalization effort because they show the rise in drug deaths between 2021 and 2023, as the liberalized drug law took effect.

The 2021 Blake ruling by the state Supreme Court declared Washington’s felony drug-possession statute was unconstitutional because it criminalized possession even when a person did not knowingly have drugs. However, the ruling did not lower the criminal penalty for illegally possessing hard drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor. After the Blake decision, the Democrat-led Legislature in 2021 responded with a law that did reduce the criminal penalty for illegally possessing hard drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor. As a result, many police agencies ceased enforcement efforts.

By eliminating the threat of jail time, the 2021 law eliminated incentives for addicts to enroll in drug-treatment programs. It also eliminated a tool used by law enforcement in sweeps of homeless camps.

The punishment under the new drug-possession law (called the “Blake fix”), approved by the Legislature during a one-day special session in May, is basically a hybrid between a gross misdemeanor and a misdemeanor. Padden does not think that will be an effective deterrent for drug offenders. Under the new law, possession convictions before July 2023 are not taken into account, so the new law ignores an offender’s criminal history when it comes to sentencing. Padden pointed out an offender’s full criminal history should be taken into account. The new law took effect on July 1, and no benefit has been seen yet.

“In King County, they’re having trouble finding room at the morgue,” said Padden. “These new statistics from the CDC demonstrate the terrible consequences of the decisions made by our colleagues. All of us in Washington are affected by this uptick in drug usage, whether we have a loved one who is afflicted or is at risk of being victimized by addicts who must steal to support their habits.

Last month, Padden joined other Senate Freedom Caucus members, including 31st District Sen. Phil Fortunato, 2nd District Sen. Jim McCune and 19th Sen. Jeff Wilson, in issuing a news release pointing out Washington had become a national leader in drug-overdose deaths.

“We’ve said all along that we should have kept our felony statutes in force. I voted against the new law this year because it wasn’t tough enough. Common sense tells us our state won’t get a handle on overdose deaths until we restore our felony laws and make prison time a possibility.”