City of Seattle one step closer to a drug use and possession ordinance

Sep 12, 2023, 4:02 PM

Seattle drug possession...

A homeless man holds a syringe after injecting methamphetamine into his arm in Seattle. Widespread drug addiction is endemic in Seattle's large homeless community, which the city is currently trying to move out from shared public spaces. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

The City of Seattle is moving closer to having a public drug use and possession law on the books.

A law made it out of the Seattle City Council’s Public Safety & Human Services Committee by a 4-to-1 vote Tuesday.

The new law would allow the Seattle city attorney, currently Ann Davidson, to prosecute people for possessing or using drugs in public, something that isn’t the case now.

It would also require the Seattle Police Department (SPD) to adopt policies that would satisfy the following objectives:

  • State that diversion and referral services are the preferred response to possession and public drug use while acknowledging that arrests are warranted in some situations.
  • Provide guidance on diversion and be consistent with public health- and safety-related guidance from an executive order Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell issued
  • Seek to minimize use of force and incorporate de-escalation and crisis intervention that reflects existing SPD policies
  • Require SPD to report to the city council on data it collects on the racial composition of those who are arrested and diverted to community-based services prior to jail booking or referral for prosecution and those who are booked and referred for prosecution

Notably, the bill clearly states officers may consider whether a person is a threat of harm to others, or themselves. If they are not, officers will only arrest if they have “identified additional articulable facts and circumstances warranting arrest.”

The ordinance would also require officers to include facts in their arrest reports that establish probable cause, an assessment of the threat presented by the person, and whether diversion was considered or utilized for any person knowingly possessing or using drugs in public.

“The severity of the drug crisis in Seattle demands clear and effective action by the city government that produces results,” James Sido of the Downtown Seattle Association said. “Seattle’s drug crisis has only worsened since the city council rejected legislation in June.”

The state legislature passed a law on misdemeanor drug use in May. The council tried to pass a similar ordinance in June, but it was narrowly voted down.

Opponents of the ordinance expressed concern over a lack of concrete diversion and treatment options.

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

“My concern is that this removes an important component of this substitute that we had previously seen,” explained councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, the lone dissenting vote on the committee. “I think that it significantly disadvantages people who face criminal charges under the law.

“I am worried that it limits to defendants’ potential defense if the police don’t follow the guidance, guardrails that we set out clearly in this legislation, and they will end up in jail,” Mosqueda continued. “And as we’ve seen from reports and headlines and public health data, sending people to jail only exacerbates the chances that they will have an overdose or they will die either in jail or when they come out of jail and begin consuming again.”

Another member of the city council spoke out about the bill, including an explanation of what pre-arrest diversion is.

“Unlike the previous version of the bill, when we say diversion is the preferred approach in the city of Seattle, this includes what is called pre-arrest diversion. It will be used for many, that this bill directs officers to use their discretion to not choose to arrest because they are not meeting the definition in the bill of committing harm to others,” said Lisa Herbold, a Seattle City Council member and chair of the Public Safety and Human Services Committee.

“Then there’s another kind of diversion that we refer to as pre-booking diversion that will be used and prioritized for others. This is language that was neither in the state law nor was in a previous version of the bill,” Herbold explained.

Outside Seattle: City of Kent creates legislation roadmap with drug possession ordinance

The ordinance the committee approved must now go to the full city council for a vote. If it passes, Mayor Bruce Harrell plans to issue an executive order that is designed to help SPD interpret how officers should react when they encounter someone using drugs in public.

The full council is set to vote on the measure on September 26th — though that date could be pushed back.

Many groups will be watching.

“Once this legislation goes into effect, the city should report publicly within 60 days on whether their approach to addressing the drug crisis is leading to more people in treatment and fewer deaths,” Sido said. “If it isn’t, they should immediately reconvene to develop a more effective strategy.”

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City of Seattle one step closer to a drug use and possession ordinance