Aug 3, 2023 - Politics

Seattle's new plan for prosecuting drug use, explained

Illustration of a jail cell door forming the shape of a red cross.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

For the second time in three months, Seattle is considering a proposal to let the city attorney prosecute low-level drug crimes.

Driving the news: Unlike an earlier plan that stalled, the new proposal includes money for treatment, plus a firmer commitment to divert people away from the criminal justice system.

Why it matters: Without a new city ordinance, Seattle won't be able to charge people for drug possession and public drug use in accordance with a new state law.

  • Those types of drug crimes have previously been sent to the county prosecutor.
  • But King County Prosecutor Leesa Manion recently said her office is not able to take on those cases going forward and plans to focus on other types of crime, such as violent offenses.

The big picture: Addressing public drug use on Seattle's streets has long been a source of tension at City Hall, with the mayor, city attorney and council members sometimes disagreeing about what role arrests and prosecution should play in combating the opioid epidemic.

Catch up quick: The new statewide law that took effect last month makes drug possession and public drug use gross misdemeanors, which are less severe crimes than felonies.

  • But right now, Seattle's city code doesn't give the city the authority to prosecute those types of gross misdemeanors.
  • In June, the Seattle City Council narrowly rejected a proposal to update the city code and give the city attorney that power.
  • At the time, City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who cast the tie-breaking vote, said the plan didn't offer enough alternatives to keep people with substance use disorder out of jail and get them help.

The latest: The ordinance unveiled this week by Mayor Bruce Harrell aims to address those concerns by earmarking $27 million for treatment and recovery services, while also declaring that "diversion, treatment, and other alternatives to booking are the preferred approach" to drug crimes in Seattle.

  • The new ordinance would let the city prosecute drug possession and public use. But it also says police should generally only arrest someone for those crimes if that person "presents a threat of harm to others."
  • In most other circumstances, the ordinance says officers should "make a reasonable attempt" to connect people with treatment services and avoid arrest.

What they're saying: "Here is a clear statement that we would like to resolve cases as much as possible in a public-health based way, outside of the criminal legal system," Lewis, who plans to co-sponsor the measure, told Axios Seattle.

Plus: "I don't see any reason it can't be the most progressive drug ordinance in the country," Lisa Daugaard, a criminal justice reform advocate and lead architect of an existing program that diverts people from the courts, told Axios.

At the same time, Daugaard said, $27 million spread over many years won't go very far toward providing the long-term support services and permanent housing many people need.

What's next: Next week, Harrell plans to release an executive order providing more details about how police should determine whether someone poses a "threat of harm."

  • The City Council is expected to consider the new drug ordinance in the coming weeks.
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