Sep 20, 2023 - News

Seattle City Council passes plan for prosecuting drug use

Illustration of Seattle City Hall with lines emanating from it.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The Seattle City Council has passed an ordinance that will allow the city attorney to prosecute people for knowing possession of drugs and public use of illegal drugs.

Why it matters: This gives the city prosecutorial authority over these kinds of drug crimes for the first time in Seattle's history. Previously, they were sent to the county prosecutor.

  • The ordinance also brings the city into alignment with the state's drug law that classifies knowing drug possession and public use as gross misdemeanors.

Details: Its passage on a 6-3 vote Tuesday follows the council's narrow rejection of a similar proposal in June that placed more emphasis on prosecution and less on treatment.

  • The new legislation states that diversion, treatment, and other alternatives to booking are the preferred response to these low-level drug crimes. In most circumstances police should avoid arrest and instead "make a reasonable attempt" to connect people with treatment services.
  • It says police should generally only arrest someone for knowingly possessing drugs and public use if they present a threat of harm to others.
  • It also says officers must be in compliance with the Seattle Police Department's body-cam policies during interactions with people suspected of knowing possession or public drug use.

Of note: ​​Treatment and recovery services will be paid for, in part, by $27 million earmarked to address the opioid epidemic in a spending plan by Mayor Bruce Harrell.

The big picture: Addressing public drug use on Seattle's streets has long been a source of tension in the city, with the mayor, city attorney, council members and the public often in disagreement over the roles treatment, arrests and prosecution should play in combating the epidemic, Axios Seattle's Melissa Santos reported last month.

What they're saying: Councilmember Tammy Morales, who voted against the bill along with councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Teresa Mosqueda, called it "performative" and said it does nothing to meaningfully address the public health crisis of addiction.

  • Councilmember Lisa Herbold, co-sponsor of the bill, acknowledged it was not perfect, but said it brings "unprecedented legal commitments to noncriminal intervention of public drug use while allowing police to take action when necessary."

What we're watching: The legislation will be sent to the mayor's office for approval and is expected to go into effect 30 days after it's signed.


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