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Rantz: Dangerous Seattle-area policy leading to teen overdose deaths

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Three kids King County died of an overdose, taking counterfeit painkillers laced with fentanyl. These deaths are occurring, at least in part, due to a policy that refuses to punish drug dealers.  

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes and King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg won’t charge most crimes committed by homeless individuals (particularly those dealing with addiction) nor felony possession of illegal substances, respectively. This has had unintended consequences.

Talk to most cops and they’ll tell you that drug dealers have evolved with the policy. They’re holding on to less product to sell, knowing if they’re caught, they won’t be charged. Once they sell out of the product they’re holding on to, they just get another supply. Cops are rendered relatively powerless in arresting low level drug dealers. This is important.

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As a result of the policy, drug dealers continue to flood the streets with illegal, addictive, dangerous substances — including fentanyl-laced counterfeit drugs.

“The vast majority of oxycodone pills purchased on the street in King County and elsewhere are likely counterfeit and likely contain deadly amounts of fentanyl,” King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht said last week.

These dealers are empowered to continue their crimes, mostly unconcerned with the legal consequences. This policy has created a culture, in my view, of more and more people feeling comfortable selling drugs. It also has the impact of making people more comfortable purchasing them.

There are fewer threats of being arrested for possession — whether we’re talking about a homeless addict or a teen addict from a loving home — which makes it more likely that they’ll illegally purchase their substance of choice. Fewer consequences means they’re likely more willing to engage in the behavior.

So it should come as no shock that an addict — or a casual drug user — isn’t thinking twice before purchasing drugs (or sharing potentially fentanyl-laced drugs with friends) when we’ve normalized the transaction.

We’ve even seen an activist-journalist in the New York Times pretend our approach is working. It’s not. And, unfortunately, it means innocent people — including teenagers — are dying of overdoses or falling deeper into addiction.

Satterberg has a painful, personal connection to the fight against opioid addiction, losing his younger sister to it. It drove him, in large part, to his policy. He finds it compassionate. His heart is in the right place, but his compassion is making the problem worse, no matter what an ideologically-driven NYT puff piece says. When you have such a blanket policy, like this one, it will be abused and people will suffer.

Most reasonable voices on the drug war suggest viewing arrests on a case-by-case basis. It’s exactly why a similar policy in Snohomish County is in the process of being changed by their prosecutor.

Cops and prosecutors need to be able to look at an individual case and decide if threat of arrest and jail time will get an addict to accept our offers of drug treatment. In cases where it’ll work, we need to be able to leverage jail time to change behavior. Their lives are literally on the line. If it won’t work, then we can approach it differently, without throwing everyone in jail.

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An added benefit to this approach is you can also use jail time to get an addict to turn on the drug dealer selling them the substance. And maybe — just maybe — after a change in the drug-acceptance culture here, a teen, or adult, will think twice about making that illegal purchase, knowing it’s not an automatic get-out-of-jail-free offense.

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here.

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