AP (NEW)

Seattle City Council OKs law to prosecute for having and using drugs such as fentanyl in public

Sep 20, 2023, 1:52 PM

SEATTLE (AP) — The Seattle City Council on Tuesday adopted a controlled substance law after rejecting it earlier this summer, making the possession and public use of drugs such as fentanyl a gross misdemeanor.

The council voted to approve the measure by a 6-3 vote on Tuesday, aligning the city’s code with a new state law.

The ordinance allows the city’s police officers to arrest people for using drugs in public when they deem the person a threat to others. The measure also emphasizes outreach, health treatment programs and other alternatives to arrest.

Supporters of the ordinance say enforcement of the law will help with public safety around the city as it and the rest of the country work to address the drug crisis of people mostly using and often overdosing on fentanyl. They say the measure could also move some people into treatment programs for substance use disorder.

“This is not a perfect bill, but it’s time to get this done because every day we (don’t) there are people that die,” said Councilmember Sara Nelson, who had pushed for the bill.

Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda, Kshama Sawant and Tammy Morales voted against it as they did with the initial proposal. They and other opponents said the law could revitalize the so-called war on drugs which jailed users and disproportionally affected low-income people and people of color.

Morales said the bill that passed Tuesday remains ineffective, The Seattle Times reported.

“It adds potential racial harm and makes false promises at a time when folks are desperate for solutions,” Morales said.

After the original bill failed to pass, the council and a task force formed by Mayor Bruce Harrell made changes to prioritize arrest alternatives and promised additional money for treatment. Both were more agreeable to Councilmember Lisa Herbold and Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who changed their votes to support the measure Tuesday.

“This legislation … for the first time in Seattle, explicitly states that diversion and treatment should be the foundation of our response to drug use,” Herbold said.

Harrell pledged $27 million for services when he introduced the new version of the bill, but it won’t be available all at once. It amounts to $7 million in unspent federal funds for treatment services and around $1 million each year from state settlements with pharmaceutical companies that make and distribute opioids.

Nelson also succeeded in removing a requirement that officers “make a reasonable attempt to contact and coordinate efforts for diversion, outreach, and other alternatives to arrest” before arresting people. Officers “may” determine “whether the individual, through their actions and conduct, presents a threat of harm to others” before arresting people using drugs in public, diluting Harrell’s version which said police “will” make those considerations.

The mayor said in a statement Tuesday he will sign the bill, which will go into effect 30 days later. In the next week he will will issue an executive order with police department training and guidance on implementation and metrics to track progress.

“We will continue pursuing a dual public health and public safety approach – leading with treatment for those suffering from substance use disorder and focusing our law enforcement resources on the dealers, traffickers, and individuals causing the most harm,” Harrel said, adding that continued support from the county, state and federal governments would be needed to solve the current crisis.

State lawmakers had been under pressure to pass a new law this year because a temporary law that made intentional drug possession illegal was due to expire July 1.

The temporary measure was approved after the Washington Supreme Court in 2021 struck down as unconstitutional the state law making drug possession a felony because it did not require prosecutors to prove someone knowingly had the drugs. Washington was the only state in the country without that requirement.

The new Washington law signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in May struck a balance between public order and compassion for people struggling with substance use, lawmakers have said.

The state law, which the city followed, makes it a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail for the first two drug possession offenses and up to a year after that. Police and prosecutors are encouraged but not required to divert people into treatment or other services.

The state measure provides $44 million for investments that include methadone mobile units, crisis centers and short-term housing for people with substance use disorders.

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Seattle City Council OKs law to prosecute for having and using drugs such as fentanyl in public