Councilmember Nelson: Failed drug possession law is ‘not the War on Drugs’

Jun 7, 2023, 3:51 PM

After the Seattle City Council voted against an ordinance that would bring the city in line with the statewide drug law passed in May, Councilmember Sara Nelson — one of the four council members to vote in favor of the ordinance — expressed her disbelief and disappointment in the results.

“I was shocked that we did not conform Seattle Municipal Code to state law,” Nelson told Jason Rantz on 770 AM KTTH. “And I’m framing it that way, because I think that people need to realize that this was a routine measure that we were going to do. We always, after legislative sessions, modify our municipal code to conform with state changes in the state criminal code.”

The Seattle City Council voted 5-4 against a bill that would have given City Attorney Ann Davison the authority to prosecute people for public drug use or possession. Councilmembers Alex Pederson, Debora Jaurez, and Dan Strauss joined Nelson in voting in favor of the ordinance.

Seattle city council fails to approve new city drug possession law

“This is not the war on drugs. I have heard from a lot of my constituents saying that this is a simple, gross misdemeanor to intervene in the most deadly drug epidemic ever to hit our streets,” Nelson said. “I feel that the comparison between this legislation, which is simply conforming to state law, and the war on drugs is is just simply misguided and doesn’t take into account the fact that this is real, it is simply a tool, we are trying to use it as a tool to get people into treatment.”

Councilmember Lewis’ last-minute decision

Councilmember Andrew Lewis said he planned to vote for the measure but decided against it, stating the issue required further discussion in committee before being voted into law. Lewis was the deciding vote in the decision, with Nelson claiming he failed his constituents of District 7, which includes South Lake Union, Pioneer Square, and downtown.

“Well, this is just a shocking dereliction of duty on the part of the city council,” Nelson said on The Gee and Ursula Show. “And it’s especially disappointing that downtown’s representative just abandoned downtown. And I don’t know what his plan is.”

Councilmember Andrew Lewis released a statement following the city council vote explaining that he was unsure of giving the “prosecutorial discretion” of drug cases to the City Attorney’s Office, especially with a lack of clear diversion programs.

“I will propose legislation that adopts the Legislature’s Blake fix – fully – once I know that we have answered the key question of what happens to people if they are charged under its powers,” Lewis said. “The people of Seattle deserve a public and open discussion for how we are going to help our neighbors suffering from addiction. They deserve to see us deliberate on the plan for enforcement and the plan for treatment.”

Lewis said that he wants to work to develop a successor to the community court, develop and fully fund treatment-based pre-file diversion, and only after, propose legislation making the Municipal Code consistent with State Law on possession and public use.

Drug possession still illegal in Seattle

Drug possession and public drug use is still illegal in Seattle and will remain illegal, the Seattle City Council stated in a “fact sheet” press release after the city council meeting concluded.

“The Seattle Police Department still has the power to arrest people for breaking Washington state’s drug laws,” the press release read. “The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office will still have the power to prosecute people for breaking Washington State’s drug laws.”

Despite Seattle police officers having the ability to still arrest people for drug possession or public drug use, and the King County Prosecutor’s Office can still charge those arrested, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office does not have “unprecedented power” to prosecute drug possession crimes, something that has traditionally been the responsibility of the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.  

“Seattle will now be the only municipality in the state where it is legal to use hard drugs in public,” City Attorney Davison wrote in a statement after the ordinance failed, a sentiment which was later challenged by Councilmember Lisa Herbold.

“City Attorney Davison’s outrageous statement that ‘Seattle will now be the only municipality in the State of Washington where it is legal to use hard drugs in public,’ is an inexcusable mischaracterization of the law,” Herbold wrote in a press release. “The Washington State Bar Rules of Professional Conduct says it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to ‘engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.’ Like this letter from more than a hundred doctors calls for, we must – instead of peddling false claims — ‘enact smart, data-proven policy that will achieve our intended goals, not naïve, reactive, and harmful policy that repeats the mistakes of the past.’ ”

King County’s role in prosecuting

With the need for a new Seattle city ordinance to allow the City Attorney’s Office to take action against misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor cases within Seattle City limits, some leaders and representatives have pondered if King County could step in through an agreement between the city and its county — a notion quickly dismissed by King County Prosecuting Attorney Leesa Manion.

“There is an incorrect notion that misdemeanor drug possession or public use cases falling within Seattle city limits can simply be referred to King County to handle as contracted services. State law may technically allow for a municipality to enter into a contract for prosecution services, but the contract would need to be negotiated and agreed upon,” Manion wrote in a prepared statement. “The Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (PAO) does not have the funding or the staff necessary to take on a new body of misdemeanor cases. Further, I can think of no precedent where a contract for prosecution services pertains to a select subset of misdemeanor and gross misdemeanors.”

Nelson doubled down on Mannion’s comments, believing this is ‘a Seattle problem.’

“We cannot send these to the county,” Nelson continued on The Gee and Ursula Show. “And there’s even a question about whether or not the Seattle Police Department can make arrests on this issue. Not that we want people to go to jail, I remind folks, but this is a Seattle problem. And we just gave up on trying to solve it.”

Organizations speak up in favor of both sides

Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) Mike Solan described the decision to not pass the ordinance as “tragic,” citing the city of Seattle has lost close to 600 officers within three years, while the remaining officers have been working under an expired labor contract for 2.6 years — making their job in keeping the city streets safe all the more difficult.

“The majority of the current city council does not reflect the community’s views regarding our public safety crisis, fueled by fentanyl,” Solan wrote in a press release. “Like 2020, most of the council is still controlled by unreasonable activists who do not reflect Seattle’s values and push extremist agendas. Yesterday’s vote reflects that reality. The councilmembers who rejected Council Bill 120586 are out of touch and have put Seattle in a more dangerous public safety situation and it will cost more lives.”

But some groups have pushed back against the narrative from council members including Nelson that voted in favor of the ordinance. The Department of Public Defense stated the ordinance failing does not decriminalize drugs because drugs are still illegal under state law.

“The Department of Public Defense opposes criminalizing public drug use and drug possession, as incarceration has been shown to significantly increase the risk of deadly overdose upon release, and prosecution is not an effective way to connect people struggling with addiction to treatment,” King County Public Defender Anita Khandelwal said in a statement. “I applaud the Councilmembers who voted to reject the harmful legislation that would have allowed the City Attorney’s Office unfettered discretion to prosecute drug possession cases in an overburdened and racially disproportionate Seattle Municipal Court system.”

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell told KIRO Newsradio today he plans to sit down with community leaders and the city council to craft new legislation before the end of the month.

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Councilmember Nelson: Failed drug possession law is ‘not the War on Drugs’