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The Impact – Drug Decriminalization Campaign; New Strain of Bird Flu Hits Washington

Mike McClanahan profile by Mike McClanahan

An initiative campaign is gathering signatures to put a drug decriminalization measure on the fall ballot. The campaign will need to submit about 325,000 signatures to the Washington Secretary of State’s Office by July 8th to make it happen. 

Tacoma attorney and I-1922 Steering Committee Member Sal Mungia feels good about the odds of it passing. 

“Yes, and here’s why. It’s just not that I call it out of thin air. Our polling shows that about 73% of people think that our drug policies are failing, that 70% in this state believe that substance use disorder is a major problem, and our early polling shows that about 53% of the people who have asked whether they would support this initiative, which has the same language, are saying yes with only about 30 perce…36% saying no.  So we’ve got that margin showing that people are in favor of this which is similar to the I-502 campaign which I was involved with as well. Those early polling numbers are the same,” said Mungia.

In February of 2021, about a year after hearing legal arguments in the case, the Washington State Supreme Court voided the state’s felony drug possession statute after finding it unconstitutional. In response, the state legislature ultimately passed a toned down version of the law with misdemeanor penalties which expires in July 2023. 

The Blake decision, as the supreme court ruling came to be known, reignited a debate over the best way to approach addiction and the extent to which the criminal justice system should be involved.  

Floor speeches and committee hearings on SB 5476 generated passionate and personal responses from constituents and legislators on both sides of the debate. 

“We have the opportunity to right that wrong and to look at our, our failures of the past with this so-called war on drugs which has been a complete failure,” said Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, Senate Floor Debate, April 15th, 2021

 “The people of my district, the parents of my district, did not send me to Olympia to create a situation where children think it’s A-Okay to do drugs and that is essentially what this bill does,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, Senate Floor Debate, April 24th, 2021.

The Washington State Department of Agriculture is tracking cases of a new strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza which has been detected in wild birds and domestic flocks in Washington this month.

“The strain that we have this year, H5N1, has potential to be zoonotic or have a public health risk. And so far CDC has let us know that the risk is very, very low,” said Dr. Amber Itle, State Veterinarian, WSDA. “However, the virus this year is so much different even than the one we saw in 2014-15, where in 2014-15 it was mostly chickens that were getting sick, guinea fowl, that sort of thing. This year we’re actually seeing clinical signs in wild birds and wild waterfowl as well as domestic waterfowl, which isn’t typical. This is an extremely pathogenic strain. We’re seeing a lot of birds die, a lot of birds become clinical, and so it’s … this particular strain is really bad for birds and not so bad for people at least so far,” said Dr. Amber Itle, State Veterinarian, WSDA.

As of May 11th, no infections had been reported on commercial poultry farms in Washington, but several backyard flocks in multiple counties had been infected.  Agricultural officials say the current popularity of keeping backyard flocks of domestic chickens and other agricultural birds makes containing the spread of avian influenza more complicated.  

“I think just in general, our societal values have changed. People really want to know where their food comes from. So we’re seeing more and more people with hobby farms, backyard flocks. We know there’s a lot of backyard flocks just in Seattle and people that have ten birds and they all have names, but they want those fresh eggs. They want that access to fresh food. They want to know where it came from. We also saw an increase in numbers of people who are raising their own food after the COVID 19 pandemic because people were worried about food security,” said Itle. “Backyard flocks are at higher risk, especially those organic flocks and those flocks that are outdoors. I know in Washington we have at least 800 backyard organic flocks in our state and those flocks are a particular risk because of how we manage them and we care for them. They aren’t housed indoors exclusively. So we are going to see more impact in those backyard flocks.”

“Usually those backyard flocks or farms have access to waterfowl. They have free range. A lot of them live in people’s houses, maybe outside of people’s houses. They have access to large areas, pasture to ponds where maybe waterfowl are. We also have a lot of farms that have mixed species,” said Itle. “The hardest thing is just getting the message out to everyone so we’ve tried really hard. There’s a lot of great resources online. USDA has a Defend the Flock page. There’s lots of resources for building your own biosecurity plan on a farm. I think for a lot of people it’s more of a cultural or a management of the way they manage their flocks.  They don’t feel like that’s possible or they don’t want to bring their birds under cover because they don’t think that’s fair to the bird. But I will say it’s really important from the perspective of animal welfare or bird welfare. If we can bring these birds in just for a couple of weeks, just until these migratory waterfowl moves along, we’re going to be able to spare them the pain and suffering that would be imposed with actually getting avian influenza, dying of avian influenza. It would be a very painful thing to go through. You know, think about that. These birds are turning blue, they’re turning blue because that virus is interfering with their ability to actually breathe and their ability to oxygenate. And this is not a fun way to go. So I really encourage those backyard flocks to employ those mitigation strategies, even if it feels like, ‘oh, well the bird can’t go out and free range, and I really want it to be out there.’ It is a hard decision, but for right now, I think the best thing for that bird is, bring it in and keep it safe and separate it from that contact with wild waterfowl. And if we can do that for a few weeks, I think we can get through this together.”

So far there haven’t been any detections on commercial poultry farms in Washington, but is that likely?

“Oh, boy, I really hope it doesn’t happen to our commercial industry. And we have a lot of poultry, commercial poultry in our state and I’ll have to double check the numbers for you. But I think it’s something around 29 million broilers and maybe two to 3 million layers in our state. This is a really robust industry. These commercial flocks take this very seriously, and they all have biosecurity plans and then they have enhanced biosecurity plans. So during an outbreak such as this, they’re putting in additional measures to prevent disease transmission onto their farm. So that might mean they’re really taking a look at visitors and being very cautious about who comes on and off their farm and taking additional measures as far as cleaning and disinfection or the movement of trucks on and off their property.  But these commercial flocks, it’s very important that we’re able to help protect them and that they’re able to employ some of those mitigation measures so that they can continue to move their product across state lines and maybe even internationally, if that’s part of their book of work,” said Itle.

Watch both interviews in full here: