Seattle City Council drug ordinance goes into effect

The Seattle City Council voted to pass an ordinance on Sept. 19 that aligns the city’s drug use laws with legislation the state passed earlier this year.

With the ordinance passing in a 6-3 vote, Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers now have the ability to arrest people for using drugs in public, specifically in situations where they deem the person a threat to others. In instances where the person is instead considered a threat to themselves, an officer will be permitted to “coordinate efforts for diversion, outreach, and other alternatives to arrest,” according to the ordinance.

The Seattle City Attorney’s Office has not had the power to prosecute drug cases since 2012, according to the mayor. Ann Davison is Seattle’s current city attorney.

“Between January 1, 2023, and June 30, 2023 — the first six months of the year — Seattle has recorded 378 overdose deaths compared to 202 in the same period in 2022, an increase of 87%,” the legislation reads. “The widespread availability and use of these deadly synthetic drugs are straining city resources and, as such, negatively impacts the provision of other emergency medical services.”

The ultimate goal, according to the mayor’s office, was to craft a local law that puts Seattle in compliance with the new state law that took effect July 1. The legislation will divert $20 million to increase treatment and overdose response services and $7 million for new capital investments focused on leading with drug treatment.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold noted in a statement after the ordinance passed the legislation isn’t perfect, but she believes it’s better than the bill that failed during the summer.

“As a legislator, sometimes you must have the conviction to vote ‘no,’ to get to a better version of ‘yes.’ The bill that passed today is vastly improved over the bill that failed in June. While this compromise legislation is not perfect, it makes unprecedented legal commitments to noncriminal intervention of public drug use while allowing police to take action when necessary,” Herbold said.

In a statement, Councilmember Andrew Lewis called the ordinance “the most substantive commitment to treatment and diversion in Seattle’s history.” He believes this new strategy will eliminate errors seen previously.

“By taking the time and listening to the experts, we ensured our approach won’t continue to make the same mistakes of the past. Rather, we are investing in a new system that prioritizes recovery while still taking a strong stance on public drug use,” Lewis said.

Opposition to the legislation

But not everyone on the city council is satisfied with this decision.

“This bill does not provide treatment. The $27 million is not to scale up treatment options in the city that would serve the very large-scale crisis that we have,” Councilmember Tammy Morales said during the vote Tuesday. “That money is coming to the city over the course of about 18 years which is ultimately less than a million dollars a year for treatment.”

In a statement after the vote was completed, Morales, citing her background in public health and her “steadfast commitment to addressing root causes of behavioral health and substance use disorder, as well as my duty as Budget Chair” was clear in stating her opposition to the legislation.

“I cannot in good conscience vote for this bill as it doubles down on harmful, ineffective, and costly incarceration to address a public health crisis – with no assurances that there will be significant new funding to provide treatment on demand and diversion strategies instead of jail,” Morales said.

Previous developments lead to upcoming moves

Governor Jay Inslee signed SB 5536 in May. The legislation made drug possession within the state a modified gross misdemeanor as a penalty with a maximum of 364 days in jail, depending on the circumstances after the House passed it on an 83-13 vote during the legislature’s special session. Inslee created the legislative special session after conversations with Democratic and Republican legislative leaders stalled in creating a state-wide drug ordinance.

In June, one month after the statewide bill passed, a similar proposal for the city of Seattle was voted down by the city council by a slim 5-4 margin. Councilmembers Alex Pederson, Debora Jaurez, Dan Strauss and Sara Nelson voted in favor of the ordinance, but Councilmember Andrew Lewis was the deciding vote against passing the bill. Lewis said he planned to vote for the measure, but decided not to, stating the issue required further discussion in committee before being voted into law.

“With the ending of community court, without any additional process, I just can’t do it today I just can’t,” Lewis said during the city council meeting in June.

Community Court, a diversion program that gives people accused of low-level, non-violent misdemeanors a chance to get their charges dismissed, was shut down this year after Davison’s office pulled their support of the program, citing it was “costly” and “ineffective.” Her office also said defendants failed to engage with court resources and resolve their cases through this process.

After the initial Seattle drug ordinance vote failed, Mayor Bruce Harrell appointed a 24-member work group to tackle the drug crisis comprised of the four corners of Seattle government – the Mayor’s Office, Seattle City Council, Seattle Municipal Court, and Seattle City Attorney – along with leaders in law enforcement, diversion programs, and service provision, and other subject matter experts.

With the ordinance passing the full council, Harrell said in a statement Tuesday evening he will issue an executive order that will help SPD determine policy for those found using or possessing drugs.

“As soon as this bill reaches my desk, I will sign it,” Harrell said. “After analyzing final adjustments to the bill and amendments from throughout the process, my office will issue an executive order in the next week to provide training and guidance to the police department on implementation, as well as metrics to track progress.”

Contributing: Steve Coogan

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