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Bellingham city council rejects proposal to ban public drug use, citing lack of diversion options

Councilmembers cited concerns regarding a lack of space in the jail and a lack of community or therapeutic courts that could link offenders to drug treatment.

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — The Bellingham City Council rejected a proposal to ban public drug use Monday, citing a lack of diversion resources for offenders. 

The ordinance would have made the use of a controlled substance in a public place a misdemeanor. Misdemeanors are punishable by a maximum sentence of 90 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000. 

Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood proposed the new ordinance, saying the state law has "effectively decriminalized open drug use," which has made it "difficult to address drug-related behaviors."

By state law, drug possession is only a misdemeanor on an offender's third arrest for the crime. On the first two arrests, police are required to refer offenders to drug treatment programs. 

The proposal was part of a slate of initiatives put forth by Fleetwood in an effort to address drug use and other unwanted behaviors downtown. The city of Marysville similarly passed an ordinance that would allow police to arrest someone on their first offense for using drugs in a public place.

Part of Fleetwood's plan is to create a community court to connect offenders with social services, which some councilmembers said they wanted in place before passing the public drug use ordinance. 

"We don't have the resources in place, so what's going to happen is we're going to have an expectation that we are going to clean up downtown and arrest our way out of this and we're not going to be able to do that," Bellingham Councilmember Lisa Anderson said. 

Both Fleetwood and Bellingham Police Chief Rebecca Mertzig acknowledged that the ordinance alone would not solve the drug issues many are facing, but maintained that the ban could still be impactful as part of a broader effort to address public drug use. 

"The ordinance that we’re recommending to you is something that I think is going to be beneficial on a number of fronts," Fleetwood said. "We’re not suggesting this is a cure-all. This is another tool in the tool kit to address open use.” 

"I do believe that this is an answer to the community problem that we are having here where fentanyl is just ravaging our community," Mertzig said. 

Calls to emergency services for overdoses are outpacing where the city was this time last year. 

In 2022, there were 70 calls for overdoses by mid-March. So far this year, there have been 87.

Councilmembers urged Fleetwood to continue working on creating a community court within the Bellingham Municipal Court before pursuing a public drug use ban. 

“If we don’t have a therapeutic court and other options in place at this time then further criminalizing or trying to arrest our way out of addiction is just insane," Bellingham City Councilmember Hannah Stone said.

In a release sent last week, Fleetwood said he is currently working with Bellingham Municipal Court Judge Debra Lev to create a community court that will "hold participants accountable while connecting them to social services" that address behavioral health and addiction issues. 

“Community courts generally take an individual and trauma-informed approach rather than the traditional punitive approach typically seen in the criminal justice system,” Lev said in the release. “Community courts use a collaborative, problem-solving approach to crime. They provide practical, targeted solutions working to find housing services, education, employment, alcohol and drug rehabilitation, behavioral health services, veterans services and other social connections.”

Fleetwood is also convening a Downtown Solutions Workgroup to get regular feedback from downtown business representatives and help develop and prioritize downtown initiatives. 

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