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Seattle City Council passes new drug-possession and public-use legislation

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Photo by Ted S. Warren / AP
Photo by Ted S. Warren / AP

On Tuesday, September 19, the Seattle City Council voted to change how the city prosecutes drug possession and public use. In a 6-3 vote, the council updated the municipal code to align with a new state law that classifies public drug use and possession as a gross misdemeanor.

Now the City Attorney's Office is responsible for prosecuting said crimes, with a maximum punishment of 180 days in prison and fines up to $1,000. People with two prior drug possession convictions can see their prison time extended to 364 days.

A return to the war on drugs?
Opponents of the new drug law include District 3 Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who argued that it will return Seattle to the era of Drug War tactics, which disproportionately impact Black and Brown people. Instead, Sawant and fellow councilmembers Tammy Morales and Teresa Mosqueda argued that the city should invest time and money in providing aid for people struggling with addiction.

"I cannot in good conscience vote for this bill, as it doubles down on harmful, ineffective, and costly incarceration to address a public health crisis, with no assurances that there will be significant new funding to provide treatment on demand and diversion strategies instead of jail," Mosqueda said.

Tuesday was the second time the council voted on legislation to align the city's municipal code with the 2023 state law. In June, it voted down a proposed bill with a similar agenda by 5-4. At the time, Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who initially favored updating the municipal code, voted against the bill due to the exclusion of treatment plans.

After the June vote, Lewis and Lisa Herbold co-sponsored an updated version of the bill, which now emphasizes arrest as a last resort for drug users.

An emphasis on diversion
"I hope that we see a measurable increase in the number of people who are getting well, who are taking advantage of services, and who are getting off the street," Lewis said on Tuesday. "And I hope that we see accountability for people who are declining those services, who continue to disrupt public services on our streets by not taking advantage of them."

Herbold emphasized that the intention of the new legislation is not to incarcerate. "We know a police-only response to addiction will not work," she said. "This legislation acknowledges that and, for the first time in Seattle, explicitly states that diversion and treatment should be the foundation of our response to drug use."

Part of the new law's controversy lies in the freedom it offers Seattle police when assessing a drug possession incident. While the updated legislative text does emphasize arrest as a last resort and encourages officers to seek alternatives to arrest, such as diversion or outreach, the decision still falls on police to determine whether someone using drugs in public poses a threat and what degree of action they should take.

There are no straightforward consequences for officers who do not reserve arrest as a last resort. Some are worried that a "strong emphasis" is not enough to prevent police from using the new law to incarcerate people struggling with addiction.

The mayor responds
On Wednesday, September 20, Mayor Bruce Harrell praised the new legislation. In an official statement, Harrell wrote, "Today's vote by the City Council is a needed step forward in our efforts to address the deadly epidemic of fentanyl and other synthetic drugs. Fentanyl is tragically killing thousands in our city and around the country, and we need urgency and innovative solutions to make change.

"In this bill, we are also making it clear that putting the public's health and safety at risk when consuming drugs is unacceptable. Everyone in our city deserves to feel safe and to be safe — waiting for a bus, entering a small business, walking any street in any neighborhood. This law will help us toward that goal."

Fighting drug use in the city has been a priority of Harrell's. In April, he signed an executive order to advance new public health strategies and to focus law enforcement on fentanyl. In 2023, King County had over 760 fentanyl-related overdose deaths.

The mayor's office stated that Harrell plans to sign the bill immediately.