Seattle city council fails to approve new city drug possession law

Jun 6, 2023, 5:59 PM | Updated: Jun 7, 2023, 2:35 pm

seattle city council candidate...

Councilmember Andrew Lewis (Photo courtesy of Seattle Channel)

(Photo courtesy of Seattle Channel)

The Seattle City Council has rejected an ordinance that would have allowed City Attorney Ann Davison to prosecute people for misdemeanor drug possession and public drug use — which was ruled into law by Washington state’s new law passed in an emergency session in May.

The move came after more than two hours of public comment from dozens of residents on both sides of the issue.

“The idea that poking them into the jail for a misdemeanor crime is somehow going to help the current situation is completely nonsensical to us,” King County Department of Public Defense Union President Molly Gilbert said during public comment.

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“Like the War on Drugs, this law deliberately targets the poor and the marginalized,” another resident said during the forum. “Like the War on Drugs, this law will make everything worse.”

Councilmember Andrew Lewis was the deciding vote in an eventual 5-4 decision. Councilmembers Alex Pederson, Debora Jaurez, Dan Strauss, and Sara Nelson voted in favor of the ordinance. Lewis said he planned to vote for the measure, but decided not to, stating the issue required further discussion in committee before being voted into law.

“With the ending of community court, without any additional process, I just can’t do it today I just can’t,” Lewis said.

Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison ends Community Court

Davison argued to city council members in a letter Monday night that this ordinance would be used as a “tool” by police and prosecutors to confront the drug crisis.

“Every day we wait, we do lose people to overdose. And that is really the point. The point is to save lives and to make our streets and parks safer … We want to get something that is available for getting people into treatment, and to intervene in antisocial behavior and to discourage public drug use,” Davison said. “There’s been nonenforcement of possession. And what we are seeing as the problem is public drug use is making our streets and our buses, and our parks unsafe. And it’s certainly not helping getting people into treatment.”

But with the legislation not passing on a tightly contested vote, Councilmember Pederson compared a state law without an accompanying city ordinance to a bus with no driver, a car with no keys, or a train with no tracks as prosecution is no longer an option for the city attorney. Some residents in the public comment agreed with the ordinance, including those representing land owners and realtors.

“Ongoing drug sales and drug use in public are a threat to public safety,” Randy Bannecker with Seattle and King County Realtors said during public comment.

A new drug possession law was recently passed statewide, classifying it as a gross misdemeanor, with a penalty of a maximum of 180 days to 364 days in jail, depending on the circumstances. The state’s former drug possession law was set to expire at the end of June, leaving several cities and counties to pass their own drug ordinances in case the state failed to pass its own law. Governor Jay Inslee issued a special legislative session to make sure an updated drug possession law was passed.

Seattle City Attorney announces plan to criminalize drug use

Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison proposed a version of this ordinance in April, specifically focusing on public drug use and criminalizing possession of a controlled substance, but other council members came out against the ordinance alongside the increasingly ruckus public comment. Tammy Morales issued a press release urging the city council to stop the “return to a failed War on Drugs in Seattle.”

“I want it to be abundantly clear that this legislation will have deadly consequences. While this legislation is moving forward without being studied, we have more than 50 years of data that demonstrates how the War on Drugs is a failure and that imprisoning people for substance use disorder doesn’t just destroy lives, it makes people 40 times more likely to die of an opioid overdose when, and if, they get out,” Morales said in a statement.

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Seattle city council fails to approve new city drug possession law