Seattle leaders propose ban on public drug use, but others oppose the idea
Some Seattle officials want a new local law to ban drug use in public places, such as city sidewalks and parks.
"Seattle's hands-off approach to people using illegal drugs in public has resulted in rampant street crime and a death toll rivaling that of Covid-19 in Seattle," Councilmember Sara Nelson said Thursday.
The proposed measure would make public drug consumption a misdemeanor in Seattle. Fellow Councilmember Alex Pedersen and City Attorney Ann Davison also back the idea and spoke at a media event Thursday morning.
The text of the ordinance cites 589 overdose deaths in Seattle during 2022, up from 342 deaths in 2021. It argues that public drug use harms public perceptions of safety, and is associated with drug trafficking, gun violence, and property crimes.
In a statement to KUOW, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell did not say whether he supports the new city drug proposal, and worries about policies that would recreate the war on drugs. See Mayor Harrell's full statement below.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold said Thursday that she will not support any local ordinances addressing drug possession. She is hoping for a fix to come down from the governor and state lawmakers. She adds that she supports Mayor Harrell's current approach to getting drugs off the street. See Herbold's full statement below.
"A patchwork quilt of different laws across the state would have unwelcome unintended consequences," she said.
Washington state currently has a misdemeanor law against possessing drugs like fentanyl or heroin, but it's a temporary law that expires July 1. The state Legislature failed to act to replace it during the session that ended last week. The state's law that had previously been on the books was ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court in 2021. The conclusion is known as the Blake decision.
In a Statement to KUOW, Mayor Harrell said:
"It is never acceptable for people to smoke fentanyl or consume illegal drugs on Seattle sidewalks and public spaces. However, it is essential that we advance evidence-based policies, programs, and services that help those in need get the treatment they deserve – and continue focusing on arrests of those dealing or taking advantage of people in crisis, both of which are critical to restoring feelings of safety downtown and for all Seattle neighbors.
I want to see that this legislation was created with appropriate input from impacted communities, law enforcement and first responders, and providers of triage and treatment. Another policy tool helping people accept services may enhance our efforts, but recreating the war on drugs would crater them. While the Council debates this legislation, our focus will remain on urgent action outlined in our Executive Order last week to expand treatment access and options – along with novel preventative services – to save lives, keep communities safe, and help those in need recover and rebuild.
A critical component in our efforts to reduce the impacts of drug use and addiction in our city and across Washington is legislative action on the Blake Decision. Like many, I was disappointed that a compromise wasn’t reached, and the clock is ticking toward a near complete rollback of programs put in place two years ago to provide a carrot and stick approach for law enforcement to address narcotics use. I urge state legislators to negotiate a workable policy that allows for effective, actionable interventions, recovery, and restoration of lives and peace of mind."
Councilmember Lisa Herbold issued the following statement expressing that she will not support the proposal, as long as there is potential for a statewide solution (this statement ends with a quote from Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz):
"I am very encouraged to learn that Governor Inslee has made it clear that he and other law makers are making progress towards a solution. I am reaching out to legislators to try and increase support for a statewide solution.
I believe the State Legislature must find a workable compromise in a special session. I will not consider a local Blake decision fix or any local drug laws while that remains a possibility. A patchwork quilt of different laws across the State would have unwelcome unintended consequences.
Let’s be clear, selling and manufacturing illegal drugs is and will remain illegal in Washington, no matter what happens. I remain committed to Seattle’s approach, as outlined as recently as last week in Mayor Bruce Harrell’s Executive Order, to work to ensure people struggling with addiction get the treatment they need. Seattle Police Chief Diaz laid out the enforcement priorities of SPD during the press conference last week:
'That’s what we’re focused on, is the big-time dealers that are bringing in this distribution and trying to prey and harm our community. We’re hoping that we can actually shore up, with state legislation, the Blake Decision, and that will allow us to really be able to figure out how do we get people into treatment to reduce demand.'"
Drug laws elsewhere in Washington
In the absence of a statewide fix to Washington's drug possession laws, rules have emerged among local jurisdictions to fill the gap. Some laws were on the books prior to the end of the legislative session, some are newly proposed, and others have not yet been implemented.
In King County, Councilmember Reagan Dunn has proposed outlawing public drug use across unincorporated county territory, making it a misdemeanor.
In 2022, Auburn opted to expand its own existing possession limits.
Federal Way passed a law prohibiting smoking fentanyl in public in 2022.
That same year, Kent also passed an ordinance prohibiting public drug use.
In Lakewood, city leaders passed new rules in March that make public drug use a gross misdemeanor.
Snohomish County Councilmember Nate Nehring commented this week that he will soon be "introducing legislation in Snohomish County to outlaw the possession and consumption of these deadly drugs in our communities."
The city of Everett is plowing ahead with its own effort to ban public drug use. The city council is weighing a new measure that would make public drug use a misdemeanor.
Edmonds City Councilmember Vivian Olson said Tuesday she is working on a new drug measure for Edmonds.
Marysville enacted a first-offense misdemeanor penalty back in January.
The Bellingham City Council voted earlier this year to criminalize open drug use.
BENTON / FRANKLIN COUNTY
In the Tri-Cities area, at least three municipalities are taking matters into their own hands. Richland and Kennewick already passed ordinances earlier this year making public drug use a misdemeanor, according to the Tri-City Herald. Pasco is now weighing its own law, too.
The city of Toppenish passed an ordinance in January 2023 that allows police to arrest people consuming illicit drugs in public, or disposing of paraphernalia in public.
Yakima County commissioners have said they’d consider a county measure if lawmakers fail to produce a statewide Blake fix.
The city of Spokane Valley will be considering its own ordinance, a city spokesperson told local outlet KXLY.
KUOW's Dyer Oxley contributed to this report.