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Lakewood passes ordinance criminalizing use of 'dangerous drugs' in public

The City Council agreed to increase the penalty from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor.

LAKEWOOD, Wash. — The Lakewood City Council unanimously passed an ordinance Monday night that makes open use of dangerous drugs a gross misdemeanor. 

A second ordinance passed unanimously Monday night makes it illegal to camp in public spaces. The goal, according to a prepared statement from Major Jason Whalen, is "not to criminalize people, but instead to encourage them into treatment."

The drug ordinance specifies that the phrase "dangerous drugs" refers to Schedule 1 substances, which means they have no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse, like meth, heroin and fentanyl.

The drug ordinance is similar to laws passed in other cities around western Washington intended to address what local lawmakers and law enforcement are calling an increase in public drug use since changes were made to drug possession laws at the state level.

Current state law requires those who are caught in possession of drugs to be referred to treatment programs two times before they can be charged with a misdemeanor. 

Lakewood is the first city to elevate the charge to a gross misdemeanor on the first offense. In cities like Marysville, public drug use is a misdemeanor offense. 

A misdemeanor offense carries a potential punishment of up to 90 days in jail and up to a $1,000 fine. A gross misdemeanor is punishable by up to 364 days in jail and up to a $5,000 fine.  

Some council members expressed concern that the increased punishment could result in a bigger financial burden on the city of Lakewood because sentences would be served in the city jail instead of a county prison. 

Assistant City Attorney Samantha Johnson, who submitted the ordinance to the city council, argued the increased penalty may prove more effective in encouraging those arrested under the ordinance to accept drug treatment.

"If you have a 90-day maximum jail sentence, sometimes 90 days looks a lot better than getting clean," Johnson said. "They would rather do 90 days in jail than get off of whatever drug, but you start talking 364 (days) and it sounds a lot different." 

Johnson said Lakewood courts are searching for community court and therapeutic court options, and prosecutors would be hesitant to seek longer jail sentences without court interventions or opportunities for treatment. 

Councilmember Patti Belle echoed that the goal of the city's ordinance would be to ultimately link offenders to treatment. 

"The end goal would be to get people the support that they need and the resources they need, and we're not looking to put people in jail for 365 days," Belle said. 

She went on to echo that she was also concerned about the financial impact the elevated charge could have on the city.

Ahead of the city council meeting on Monday, Mayor Jason Whalen said the law is necessary for Lakewood.

"This is an opportunity to put some teeth in the law that is not otherwise present for a city like Lakewood to discourage open public drug use," Whalen said.

Whalen said he's heard firsthand how open drug use impacts the larger community, as businesses leave due to safety concerns.

"That creates an economic problem for the business owner because now he has a vacancy that he has to try to fill, or he has to take alternative steps to make his property safer," Whalen said. 

It's an expense that Whalen says gets passed onto the customers.

Sergeant Charles Porche of the Lakewood Police Department says the use of dangerous drugs has increased in the city.

He wants officers to have more power to improve public safety.

"We don't have the teeth, so to speak, that we had previously," Porche said. "Where, when we came across that kind of use and possession, we could arrest people and hold them accountable for that. And now with the current legislation that is ... It's a lot more difficult."

Whalen said that while he understands that the ordinance isn't a perfect solution, it's a step in the right direction, saying the goal isn't to criminalize those suffering from drug addiction but to make sure that those who are suffering get help.

"I think there's certainly a lot of signals that more treatment is needed because many people and many of the issues on the street are, in my opinion, are related to drug addiction," Whalen said. "So we have to do a better job as a society at funding adequate treatment for those who are willing to avail themselves."

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