Seattle drug laws continue to be contentious, unclear

Aug 14, 2023, 1:43 PM | Updated: 2:03 pm

Seattle drug laws...

Residents of a homeless encampment walk through the encampment after smoking fentanyl on Seattle. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Seattle drug laws have been controversial for years. Many people blame these laws for the dizzying crime rates in the city.

Appearing on his regular Monday segment on Seattle’s Morning News, Casey McNerthney, Director of Communications at the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, attempted to clarify the status of Seattle’s drug laws.

More on Seattle drug laws: Seattle City Council holds special meeting on drug use ordinance

“You can arrest drug users under state law, but they can’t be prosecuted unless there’s a clear ordinance from the city council,” McNerthney explained.

During a special session in May, the state Legislature passed a law that criminalizes public drug use to make it a gross misdemeanor. But the Seattle City Council did not pass its own version of that.

State law is clear that cities like Seattle have to pass their own ordinance. City Attorney Ann Davison said, “Seattle will now be the only municipality in the State of Washington where it is legal to use hard drugs in public.”

But even that statement isn’t without controversy.

City Councilmember Lisa Herbold wrote on the city council blog that “the Seattle Police Department still has the power to arrest people for breaking Washington State’s drug laws. The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office will still have the power to prosecute people for breaking Washington State’s drug laws.

“By not passing the legislation, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office will continue to have authority to prosecute drug crimes,” Herbold continued. “The Seattle City Attorney’s Office, simply, will not get any new powers.”

McNerthney said that is only true to a point.

“They can’t just push it on to the county and say, ‘We don’t want to deal with this. You figure it out,'” he said. “What we have control over is unincorporated King County. So the Skyway and the handful of other parts of unincorporated King County. That’s where we’re going to enforce that state law because we have jurisdiction, and the Attorney General’s Office has also put out two opinions saying just that.”

Meaning the city falls into a gray area on enforcement of the law.

What is being done about the Seattle drug crisis?

Host Dave Ross attempted to clarify. “That means if you want to use drugs and not be held accountable, you just come into the city?” he asked.

“The hard part is people know that. But what county prosecutors do have is control over our drug dealers,” McNerthney said. “You heard about that big bust with the fentanyl with the sheriff’s office in parts of Seattle last week. There was also a case where there was a guy who had multiple people who had 60 pounds of meth in suitcases. They’re on Alaskan Way South. And that was a really big bust that didn’t make headlines but was charged immediately when we got it. There have been 200 cases between January and the end of July that have come to us with the evidence to prove it. And so we’ve charged those and we’ll keep doing that, regardless of what happens with the drug use part of it.”

Dave asked: “When it comes to street dealing of drugs, a Seattle cop can arrest a dealer, and the county will prosecute that?”

“King County will prosecute that at the felony level. Yes.” McNerthney said.

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Seattle drug laws continue to be contentious, unclear