Seattle considering its own public drug use ordinance

SEATTLE — New legislation was proposed on Thursday to ban drug use in public places such as parks, sidewalks, bus stops, and on public transit.

Seattle is the latest city across the state to tackle drug possession laws after state lawmakers couldn’t agree on a compromise following a state Supreme Court ruling in 2021 that made the state’s felony drug possession statute unconstitutional. It’s been a misdemeanor ever since, but that’s set to end and drug possession would become legal statewide on Jul. 1.

Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison and Seattle City Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pederson are behind the legislation modeled after a similar ordinance passed in Bellingham this month.

“This legislation acknowledges the public health crisis of substance use disorder and will provide a new tool to engage those using drugs in public. In 2022, there were 589 overdose deaths in Seattle, with the majority attributed to fentanyl and methamphetamines,” a news release about the legislation said.

The proposed ordinance would make using a controlled substance in public a misdemeanor, excluding marijuana.

It does not cover drug possession.

“Our hands-off approach to people using illegal drugs in public has resulted in rampant street crime and a death toll rivaling that of COVID-19 in Seattle. Complacency is no longer an option. Cities have laws and enforcement to dissuade activity that is harmful to oneself and to others – from speeding in school zones to unlawful possession of firearms – and public use of deadly drugs should be no exception,” said Nelson.

Mayors have been pushing for city ordinances to make drug possession a gross misdemeanor that would put offenders in jail.

That may be a tricky solution because currently, jails are short-staffed.

Some lawmakers think current drug laws are too soft, while others think drugs should be decriminalized altogether. Others fall somewhere in between and want a compromise of holding drug users accountable while offering them drug abuse treatment.

There’s also the argument that jail time instead of treatment programs is harmful to those with drug addictions, but some mayors say treatment either isn’t working or isn’t being accepted by those who need it.

In the hours, since the major announcement fellow councilmember Lisa Herbold came out with a statement saying she’d prefer a statewide solution.

“I will not consider a local Blake decision fix or any local drugs laws while that remains a possibility,” said Herbold. “A patchwork quilt of different laws across the state would have unwelcome, unintended consequences.”

There is still the possibility that Gov. Jay Inslee could call lawmakers into a Special Session, but if that doesn’t happen, it will be up to city and county officials to figure out laws for their jurisdictions.

Some mayors, such as Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin, want to outlaw open drug use by making it a misdemeanor that could land violators in jail.

“Right now, you have local mayors across the state working collaboratively to try and match our ordinances, so we do have similar laws in all of our cities,” said Franklin.

Edmonds City Council President Vivian Olson says the city is working on a drug ordinance proposal of its own.

ACLU of Washington Political Director Alison Holcomb agrees there is a substance abuse crisis statewide. However, she disagrees that criminal penalties are part of the solution.

“We have to at some point acknowledge that we can’t arrest ourselves out of substance abuse disorder,” argued Holcomb.

She points out, in Washington state there are already laws on the books that crack down on public drug use.

“You can still call the police and have the police come to a scene and confiscate any drugs they find,” said Holcomb.