Seattle mayor, city council respond to failed drug possession ordinance with new plan

Jun 12, 2023, 7:20 PM


Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell speaks during his second 'State of the City' address on Feb. 21, 2023.

Seattle’s mayor is promising a new law to crack down on open-air drug use on city streets.

On Monday, Mayor Bruce Harrell appointed a 24-member work group to tackle the problem comprised of the four corners of Seattle government – the Mayor’s Office, Seattle City Council, Seattle Municipal Court, and Seattle City Attorney – along with leaders in law enforcement, diversion programs, and service provision, and other subject matter experts.

The task force comes in the wake of a 5-4 city council vote last week that rejected an ordinance that would have given City Attorney Ann Davison the authority to prosecute people for public drug use or possession. The Seattle City Attorney’s Office has not had the power to prosecute drug cases since 2012, according to the mayor.

Councilmember Andrew Lewis was the tiebreaking vote, stating he could not vote for the measure because it did not outline enough treatment options or diversion programs as alternatives to jail time.

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According to the Mayor’s Office, the purpose of the group is “to advance effective and sustainable solutions addressing illegal drug use in public spaces.” But the specifics of how that will happen are still unclear.

“We will pass a law that allows our department to make arrests. But we will do that with compassion to protect people when we have to, but our values will always be to lead with compassion, with help with love, always,” Harrell said.

When pressed for details, he advocated for expanding options like crisis care centers, locations where people in need of substance use treatment, or in any kind of emotional or behavioral health crisis, could seek care or be connected to a detox program or sobering center.

In a special election in April, more than 54% of voters approved a levy for a new network of crisis care centers in King County.

Mayor Harrell also supports a successor to Seattle’s community court — which officially ended this week after city attorney Davison’s office pulled their support of the program. As of Monday, no new cases will be sent to community court, and any outstanding cases must be resolved in the next three months, or they will be handed over to the municipal court. Previously, 24 different kinds of misdemeanors were automatically sent to community court, where participants were asked to complete a course.

Davison said in a statement that the court was being shut down because it was “costly” and “ineffective.” Her office also said defendants failed to engage with court resources and resolve their cases through this process.

Now the mayor — and some city council members — want to bring some type of community court back.

“The municipal court [and] the city attorney will be hard at work designing what a new community court looks like,” Harrell said.

The end of community court played a deciding factor in Councilmember Lewis’ decision to vote against the previous drug ordinance. Like the mayor, he wants to see a measure that includes those types of diversion tactics.

“We can come to terms on those things and move forward with a new successor therapeutic court that can serve the needs of many in our community who currently don’t have a pathway to recovery through our court system,” Lewis said.

Councilmember Lewis also addressed the backlash he has received from community members following his vote last week, particularly from those who said he had failed in his duty as the council’s appointed downtown representative.

“Business owners are going to have an expectation when this ordinance passes, that people who are openly using drugs in front of their business — there will actually be some mechanism to alleviate that hazard — both for the person using and for that business,” Lewis said. “Under that previous statute, there was no such plan.”

Likewise, Harrell made it clear that even though he supports a “treatment-first” approach, Seattle Police will have the authority to intervene in situations involving both public drug use and possession.

“We will reconcile state law vs. city law,” Harrell said. “And then we’ll come up with an ordinance that allows us to make a lawful arrest. We’ll come up with a strategy to give our officers clarity and how they will make sure people that need treatment get treatment.”

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One major issue the task force will face with any future ordinance is if, and when, those arrested for drug crimes will spend time in jail. Even if a new ordinance is passed, the King County Jail still would not book people for drug possession, in accordance with their current policies. Some have questioned the purpose of arresting people if they cannot be held in custody.

“[While] the King County Jail is not booking people for smoking drugs on the street, what we are trying to do is add another tool to get people into treatment, and also to address the harms of public drug use on our buses, on our sidewalks in our parks,” Councilmember Sara Nelson told KIRO Newsradio.

When asked for specific details on treatment options, Nelson suggested revisiting a plan she put before the city council last year, which in her words would “contract directly with treatment centers” to provide services for those with substance abuse disorders.

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The ultimate goal, according to the mayor’s office, is to craft a local law that puts Seattle in compliance with the new state law that takes effect July 1. When asked if a new ordinance would be finalized by then, Mayor Harrell declined to give a specific timeline.

“These problems [did not start] just two weeks ago,” Harrell said. “They’re not going to be solved in two weeks. I hope everyone understands that.”

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