Bellingham Council rejects making public drug use a crime
Despite the mayor’s best efforts, the Bellingham City Council has rejected a proposal that would make public drug use a crime.
It was just last week when Mayor Seth Fleetwood proposed an ordinance that would make public drug use a misdemeanor.
The ordinance would have made the use of a controlled substance in a public place a misdemeanor. Misdemeanors are punishable by a maximum sentence of 90 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000.
“There’s a lot of impunity in the act of open drug use in downtown Bellingham, and I think we need to find a way to disrupt that activity,” Fleetwood said.
By state law, drug possession is only a misdemeanor on an offender’s third arrest for the crime. On the first two arrests, police are required to refer offenders to drug treatment programs.
New laws in Marysville prohibit public drug use, disruptions on buses
The city of Marysville was able to pass two similar city ordinances preventing public drug use late last year. The first ordinance prohibits the use of controlled substances in public without a prescription. The second ordinance will further prohibit inappropriate behavior aboard transit, at park-and-ride lots, or at bus stops.
The city has been grappling with open drug use of fentanyl and other narcotics. Businesses have complained about the impact.
The mayor had hoped that his proposals would be the start of improving conditions downtown. In a news release, he said:
These actions are the next step in a multi-year focus on downtown, where public health and safety concerns continue despite nearly one million dollars in investments in security personnel, downtown ambassadors, graffiti abatement, sanitation and other services last year and continuing this year.
Fleetwood and Bellingham Municipal Court Judge Debra Lev have said that they are working together to create practical solutions to the issue of drug use and addiction alongside the legislation proposed by the mayor.
“Community courts generally take an individual and trauma-informed approach rather than the traditional punitive approach typically seen in the criminal justice system,” Judge Lev said. “Community courts use a collaborative, problem-solving approach to crime. They provide practical, targeted solutions working to find housing services, education, employment, alcohol and drug rehabilitation, behavioral health services, veterans services, and other social connections.”
This process includes the creation of community courts that will “hold participants accountable while connecting them to social services.”
Bellingham Police Chief Rebecca Mertzig said her department has responded to 87 overdose calls this year. That compares to 70 overdose calls in all of 2022.
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Council members argued that it wasn’t so much they were against the proposal, it was that they did not see an adequate plan to deal with people after they were arrested.
Currently, police can not even tell drug users that what they are doing is illegal.