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Washington Legislature passes groundbreaking addiction recovery law

Summary

The bill creates a testimonial privilege so that sponsors cannot be called to testify in future civil proceedings.

Story

Washington state has passed a law making it the first in the nation to actively protect the relationship between individuals in addiction recovery programs and their sponsors. Last night, the state legislature voted to override Gov. Jay Inslee’s veto of Senate Bill 6498, which changes the laws around privileged information to include the relationship for those seeking recovery from addiction and their sponsors during civil proceedings.

“This is an exciting victory for those seeking recovery from substance abuse addiction,” said Metropolitan King County Council Vice Chair Reagan Dunn, primary advocate of the bill. “I would like to thank Sen. Fain and Rep. Hurst for sponsoring the bill in their respective chambers as well as the rest of the Washington State Legislature for recognizing its importance and seizing the opportunity to become an example for other states across our nation.”

Earlier this year the Washington State Legislature passed Senate Bill 6498 with overwhelming support. The bill received 94 votes in the House and unanimous support from the Senate. However, during Gov. Jay Inslee’s unprecedented veto of 27 bills after legislators failed to pass the budget during the regular legislative session, the legislation was put on hold.

“Alcoholism is a serious disease,” said Sen. Joe Fain, of Auburn, who serves as Senate Majority Floor Leader and prime sponsor of the legislation. “Reducing barriers to treatment is key to successful outcomes for people battling addiction. Strengthening proven support programs can help keep people in recovery with the tools they need to stay sober.”

“This is a good piece of legislation and I was proud to sponsor the House version,” said Rep. Chris Hurst, House sponsor. “This bill is critical to ensuring that those who are seeking treatment from addiction have the protection to speak openly with their peers and sponsors without the fear of repercussions. With this legislation we are protecting the privacy of those in recovery with the hopes that it will encourage others to seek treatment with the knowledge that what they say will be held in confidence.”

SB 6498, which applies to all noncriminal actions, provides legal protection to individuals seeking alcohol and drug addiction treatment and their program sponsors. The bill creates a testimonial privilege so that sponsors cannot be called to testify in future civil proceedings. This privilege does not apply in any criminal legal proceedings. While State law currently allows privileged communication for people serving as attorneys, counselors, spouses, journalists and medical professionals it excludes the relationship between an individual participating in an alcohol or drug addiction recovery program and their program sponsor.

“We at the King County Behavioral Health and Recovery Division feel it is our obligation to remove any barriers that keeps people from accessing necessary treatment,” said Jim Vollendroff, Division Director. “We are thrilled that Washington State recognizes the importance of the relationship between those seeking treatment for drug and alcohol addictions and their sponsors.”

The confidential nature of this relationship is intended to provide a safe place for healing and full recovery. Lawyers seeking negative portrayals of individuals in lawsuits and divorce proceedings can exploit the lack of protection for addiction recovery sponsors through subpoenas, depositions and trial testimony. This kind of legal action has the potential to discourage those seeking recovery from pursuing it.

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