Washington state becomes national leader – in overdose deaths

Legislature’s two-year experiment with weak, unenforceable laws against hard drugs brings death across the state, say members of Senate Freedom Caucus

OLYMPIA – Washington state has become a national leader in drug-overdose deaths, according to new figures from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, and senators say credit goes to the Washington Legislature and its 2021 effort to wipe felony drug laws from the books.

The statistics show drug deaths skyrocketed in Washington state after Democratic leaders insisted on eliminating felony penalties for the possession of hard drugs. In 2022, Washington saw the biggest increase in overdose fatalities anywhere in the country, an astounding 23.9 percent increase.

Members of the Senate Freedom Caucus say Washington’s first-place ranking is nothing to be proud of.

“Our colleagues’ new approach to drugs succeeded in reducing the number of addicts in our state, but in the harshest possible way,” said Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview. “Last year, overdoses of heroin, fentanyl and other hard drugs claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people across Washington state. There must be a better way to reduce drug addiction in Washington.”

The new statistics from the CDC illustrate the effect of Washington’s decriminalization effort because they show the rise in drug deaths between 2021 and 2022, as the liberalized drug law took effect.

Washington lawmakers revised drug laws in 2021 after the state Supreme Court overturned felony statutes for possession of hard drugs on a technicality. Majority Democrats in the Legislature chose not to fix the language in the statute, arguing that the “war on drugs” was counterproductive and racially insensitive. Instead, the Legislature reduced the crime to a misdemeanor, with penalties accruing only on the third offense. As a result, many police agencies ceased enforcement efforts.

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

Lawmakers changed the law again this year, keeping hard-drug possession as a misdemeanor, but allowing jail time on the first offense. The new law took effect on July 1, and the effect has yet to be seen.

“In King County, they’re having trouble finding room at the morgue,” said Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, the Senate Republican lead on law and justice issues. “These new statistics from the CDC demonstrate the terrible consequences of the decisions made by our colleagues. All of us in Washington state are affected by this uptick in drug usage, whether we have a loved one who is afflicted or are victimized by addicts who must steal to support their habits.

“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 we aren’t going to get a handle on overdose deaths until we restore our felony laws and make prison time a possibility.”

The federal statistics show Washington state is an extreme outlier in drug fatalities. While deaths increased by nearly a quarter in Washington state, the average death rate nationwide actually decreased by 0.1 percent.

Maine and Oregon were the second and third-place states, but the increases in those states were far less significant, 16.8 percent and 14.5 percent respectively.

Though the state Department of Health has not yet released statistics for the precise number of overdose deaths during calendar year 2022, the CDC figures are based on an estimate extrapolated from data collected the first six months of the year. The CDC is estimating that 2,850 Washington residents died as a result of drug overdoses in 2022.

Statistics for King County are available, however – and they show Washington’s most populous county is the state’s overdose hotspot. King County public health officials report 1,001 people died due to drugs or alcohol poisoning in 2022. The county is poised to exceed this number in 2023, with 711 dead so far this year.

“Washington is setting records for overdose deaths,” said Sen. Jim McCune, R-Graham. “In just a short period of time, Olympia Democrats have destroyed our criminal justice system and created lawlessness in our communities and in our streets.”

Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, said he hopes the federal statistics will offer a lesson to legislative leaders about the consequences of weaker laws.

“I hope everyone will be paying attention when the Department of Health releases numbers for the death toll statewide. This is what happens when people decide the drug problem can take care of itself. We don’t just kill drug users. We kill the morale of law enforcement officials and first responders. We kill the safety of our streets. We kill the prospect of hope. Some people think softer drug laws are a matter of compassion, and I wish the victims were still with us to correct the mistake.”

The Senate Freedom Caucus, a group of four Republican senators concerned with issues of personal freedom and responsibility, was founded in 2021 by the late Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.