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Seattle City Council rejects public drug use legislation

Council members narrowly voted down a bill that would have allowed the City Attorney's Office to prosecute public drug use cases.

SEATTLE — The Seattle City Council voted Tuesday evening not to pass legislation that would have allowed the City Attorney's Office to prosecute public drug use cases.

The ordinance, sponsored by Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen, would have brought Seattle into compliance with the state's new drug possession law, which makes the crime a gross misdemeanor and goes into effect July 1. 

The council bill failed to pass in a 5-4 vote. Councilmembers Pedersen, Nelson, Debora Juarez and Dan Strauss voted in favor of the bill. Councilmembers Lisa Herbold, Kshama Sawant, Teresa Mosqueda, Andrew Lewis and Tammy Morales voted in opposition to the bill. 

"State law without the local law is like a train without tracks, a car without keys, it's a pen without ink," said Pedersen. "You have to have them together or else it's basically tantamount to decriminalizing."

"Our existing interventions are insufficient to address the gravity of this problem," said Nelson. "We have to do something or the alternative is doing nothing new and that is just unacceptable."

There were more than two hours of public comment and three hours of discussion ahead of the vote before council members decided more work needed to be done to address the root of the problem. 

Council members had concerns over diversion efforts that resulted in the council unanimously passing an amendment to the legislation, although the bill still failed. The amendment brought to the council by Strauss would have added language from the state law to the proposed city law that would have encouraged prosecutors to divert people to treatment programs, rather than jail.

“We cannot further criminalize the crisis, the mental health and behavioral health and substance abuse crisis of addiction,” Mosqueda said. “That is a public health issue and deserves to be treated as a public health crisis.”

Sawant also voiced opposition to the bill ahead of the Tuesday meeting in a press release saying the bill "criminalizes addiction rather than addressing poverty as the root of the opioid crisis."

The Seattle City Council ordinance skipped over committee and went straight to the full council at the request of Herbold, which was granted by Council President Juarez. 

A Seattle City Council spokesperson said although the City Attorney’s Office won’t have the authority to prosecute these cases, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office would have jurisdiction to prosecute gross misdemeanors inside city limits.

However, a spokesperson for the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office said the process won’t be that simple. Seattle can enter into a contract for prosecution services with King County, but that will need to be negotiated and agreed upon, according to spokesperson Casey McNerthney. The office said there wasn't a precedent where a contract pertained to a specific subset of misdemeanors or gross misdemeanors.

Additional case referrals would also require more staff and funding because the King County prosecutor’s office doesn’t have the resources to take on those gross misdemeanor cases. In previous years, the drug cases that King County prosecuted were felony cases handled by felony prosecutors.

City Attorney Ann Davison originally proposed the legislation before the state law was passed.  

According to the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, there were 589 overdose deaths in Seattle in 2022, up 72% from 2021.

The Seattle Police Officers Guild opposed Seattle City Council’s move.

“It's going to put our city's public safety crisis that much more in a dire circumstance. I think it's sad for our city moving forward as we're going to see more loss of life and that's completely avoidable,” said Mike Solan, President Seattle Police Officer’s Guild.

“The majority of the current city council does not reflect the community’s views regarding our public safety crisis, fueled by fentanyl,” Sloan said.

“This was avoidable, this will hinder our ability to save lives. There needs to be a solution and there needs to be a solution fast,” Solan said.

The union said Tuesday’s vote comes as Seattle Police Department has lost nearly 600 officers within three years and officers have been working under an expired labor contract for more than two and a half years all while and recruitment efforts are struggling.

“These are significant hurdles that if they don’t get rectified Seattle is in serious trouble moving forward,” Solan said.

The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office said it’s up to Seattle Police Department on what office it will refer cases to if an arrest is made.

Eighteen business associations in Seattle grouped together to send council members a letter asking them to pass the bill. One of those organizations was the Downtown Seattle Association, which sent KING 5 the following statement elaborating on their support for the bill:

“Seattle’s drug crisis is a public health emergency that is worsening by the day and one that demands urgent action. We see this emergency and its impacts daily in downtown. Allowing these conditions to persist is inhumane and unacceptable both for those in the throes of debilitating and life-threatening addiction and members of the public who are exposed to toxic fumes on our streets, in our parks and on our public transit systems. Our ambassador teams have been on the front lines of this epidemic, administering Narcan to 117 individuals since October 2022, including 91 people already this year. At a critical time for the recovery of downtown, the use of dangerous drugs in our public spaces is a significant contributing factor to residents, employees, families and visitors feeling unsafe exploring our city or returning to the office. In fact, in a poll we commissioned late last month, the full results of which will be released later this week, a full 77% of voters agreed with the statement “Seattle’s hands-off approach to people using illegal drugs in public is contributing to rampant street crime and is making it much harder for downtown to recover”, 63% of those strongly agreed.”

Following the vote, the Downtown Seattle Association said something needs to be done to prevent drug overdoses and public drug use. 

"People are dying on the streets every day and it's a threat to our continued economic revival in our city. We need action by the city council," said John Scholes, the CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association. 

Other organizations, like King County's Department of Public Defense, opposed the bill. Department Director Anita Khandelwal sent the following statement elaborating on her opposition: 

“DPD opposes criminalizing drug use and drug possession. The evidence is clear that prosecuting drug possession does not reduce drug use; incarceration has been shown to increase the risk of deadly overdose. The war on drugs has caused egregious harm to the community, especially communities of color. Due to that, Seattle has historically funded diversion programs that emphasize harm reduction. Passing this proposed ordinance would continue the failed drug war and be a costly decision that will result in fewer resources being available to fund treatment and housing. This decision is being unnecessarily rushed and I urge the City Council to reject this bill and instead fund services that respond to this urgent public health crisis.”

Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rachel Smith issued the following statement after the vote:

"Yesterday’s action by the Seattle City Council was chaotic and disappointing. We know that there is no one solution to keep everyone in our community safe and healthy from the scourge of fentanyl – it is going to take an all-of-the-above approach, but hundreds of people are dying on the streets of Seattle and that is completely unacceptable. It is now incumbent on city leaders to articulate what their plan is to address this crisis, because so far they have failed." 

One of the deciding votes on Tuesday night was Council Member Andrew Lewis, who represents Downtown Seattle. Lewis said he had planned to vote in favor of the bill but could not because he felt there needed to be a set plan for diversion services. In a release sent Wednesday, Councilmember Lewis said he plans to propose new legislation to address public drug use, after putting more thought into how diversion services will work.

The state bill, which was passed during a controversial special legislative session in May, sets the penalty for possession of controlled substances as a gross misdemeanor with a maximum confinement time of six months for the first two convictions. Any fine for any conviction is capped at a maximum of $1,000. 

The state bill would create a system for a pre-trial diversion program to get people into treatment. The bill requires mandatory early conviction vacation if the person in question can complete treatment or has "substantially complied" with a recovery program or similar services for six months.  

In 2021 the Washington Supreme Court struck down a state law making drug possession a felony. It was unconstitutional, the court said, because it did not require prosecutors to prove that someone knowingly had the drugs. Washington was the only state in the country without that requirement.

In response, lawmakers passed a temporary measure giving themselves two years to build a long-term policy.

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