King County councilmember introduces bill to criminalize drug use

Apr 26, 2023, 3:00 PM | Updated: 3:26 pm


A homeless man, 24, holds a piece of aluminum foil he used to smoke fentanyl in Seattle. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Councilmember Reagan Dunn wants to add King County to a growing list of cities and counties enacting drug use and possession laws after state lawmakers failed to act before the current law expires June 30.

His first proposal would make public use of illegal narcotics on public property in unincorporated King County a misdemeanor.

Controversial WA drug possession bill fails, laws could be made locally

“We’re also disappointed that the state Legislature didn’t have the courage to act to figure out a solution to the legality of use and possession of drugs and public spaces,” Dunn said. “And I really wish they had done that. Because that way, we wouldn’t have a patchwork effect of state laws being different than local laws. ”

Since the bill did not pass before the end of the legislative session, no drug possession laws will exist statewide, and it will be up to cities and counties to create their own drug possession laws with varying penalties and treatment options.

The current state law, which was passed as a stopgap after the Blake decision, expires in July and classifies drug possession as a misdemeanor on the third arrest. There is a maximum sentence of 90 days in jail, up to $1,000 in fines, or both after a third arrest.

New legislation introduced by Dunn would carry a penalty of up to 90 days in jail and make public drug use in King County a misdemeanor.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that the county council will come to some kind of criminal penalty for doing drugs out in the public to protect our community and our business owners and our children in parks and playgrounds. But we’ll see. I think this the reason why it’s a relatively light touch,” Dunn said. “I didn’t try and replicate the entire state criminal code, and this ordinance simply says you can’t do drugs in public in plain view.”

Dunn said that this law was so important specifically because jail time was one of the best ways to get people into treatment, which he said would not happen without legislation stopping public drug use.

“One of the great off-ramps to get somebody out of a life of addiction is the criminal justice system. And there are treatment options that exist that can be ordered by a judge and paid for in large part by the public. And with Blake laws expiring and the legislature not taking action, there is no such off-ramp,” Dunn said. “Hundreds of millions of dollars of treatment money for people in addiction won’t be spent, it’s locked up and never used.”

Snohomish County Councilmember Nate Nehring made a similar proposal late Sunday night after the state Legislature’s deadline passed without a new bill being ratified.

Drug use in the state has been spiking, and overdose deaths in King County nearly doubled between 2020 and 2022, according to the public data dashboard. According to the dashboard, fentanyl was the leading drug contributing to overdose deaths in 2022, followed by methamphetamine.

Dunn’s proposal would apply only to unincorporated King County.

A second proposal outlawing drug possession is too complicated and politically charged and will come at a later date, Dunn said.

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King County councilmember introduces bill to criminalize drug use