Mayor Bruce Harrell issued an executive order Monday to enhance the City’s response to drug overdose deaths, which rose 72% from 2021 to 2022, he said.  

In response to this public health crisis, no one representing public health stood onstage next to Harrell at the press conference yesterday afternoon in Pioneer Square to cheer on the mayor as he announced his “downtown activation plan” to help address the issue. 

The fire chief, police chief, and a spare city council member sat in the front row as Harrell laid out his vision, which included enhanced intervention after non-fatal overdoses, elimination of downtown “drug traffickers” of indeterminate size, and the addition of “sip-and-stroll” nights, where art-lovers could gallery-hop during art walks without having to dump their glasses of chardonnay in-between venues. His other plans for revitalizing downtown included filling 20 vacant storefronts and reopening City Hall Park.

In general, the mayor offered concrete proposals that could boost short-term increases in downtown foot traffic, but he only offered vague sketches for standing up a serious public health response to an opioid crisis more than a decade in the making. 

Downtown Seattle Is Only for Certain Kinds of Drug Users

After describing the unprecedented and deadly nature of fentanyl, Harrell passed the mic to the City’s economic development director, Markham McIntyre, to talk about making downtown Seattle cool again ahead of an MLB All Star Game in July and a couple upcoming summer conferences.

Or, as McIntyre put it after mentioning those events, “We really want to make sure we take a lot of action now to put our best foot forward.”

McIntyre wants to get more people downtown. Well. More of the right people. 

The fact that business interests rather than public health interests primarily drive the Mayor’s proposals for addressing the opioid crisis seemed most evident during a discussion of his plan to request sip-and-stroll permits from the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board for First Thursday Art Walks. With this policy, Harrell suggests he wants to encourage currently illegal substance use that cool art types engage in but discourage currently illegal substance use that poor and often homeless people engage in. 

When asked how Harrell squared the difference there, City Council Member Sara Nelson jumped up to explain the difference between sipping alcohol while bopping between art galleries and using fentanyl in public spaces. And in doing so, she further underlined the real motivation behind this push, emphasis mine. 

“There is a false equivalency between the ‘Sip n’ Stroll’ idea, which is great for small businesses and for downtown spaces, and consumption sites for illegal drugs. One is illegal, one is not,” Nelson said.

Of course, drinking from an open container is illegal, which is the whole reason why the city needs to ask the liquor control board for the permits.

Granted, her point about the false equivalency between the acute dangers of light social drinking and street use of fentanyl stands to reason. And don’t get me wrong–some of the cool art kids at The Stranger have been screaming about allowing people to drink outside for a while now. But if the City is genuinely trying to reduce overdose deaths here, then the City should prioritize standing up safe consumption sites–as the cool art kids at The Stranger and public health officials have been screaming about since 2017, when King County found that the sites “reduce harm and improve outcomes.” Since then, other cities have found that when people have access to these sites, medical responders save lives and connect people to treatment.

A Different Approach

At the presser, Harrell said he remained open to the idea of standing up such a site, but he said it wasn’t part of the plan right now. Instead, the Mayor wants to focus on responding to non-fatal overdoses that happen outside, unsupervised. 

As part of Harrell’s executive order, the Seattle Fire Department’s Health One program will respond to overdose calls along with emergency medical personnel and police. After the other responders leave, Health One will stay around to connect with the person who just overdosed, said Harold Scoggins, Seattle Fire Chief. Health One will absorb those calls into its normal program. 

The Mayor’s office is also “exploring” funding for a post-overdose diversion facility where respondents can take people after a non-fatal overdose. Details about who will run this facility and where the facility will be remain scarce. I’ve asked for more and will update if I hear back.

In the meantime, Harrell will also form a task force of cops and public health reps “to analyze current strategies and programs and design improvements to increase effectiveness.”

The mayor’s office also secured funding for a pilot research-based drug abatement program known as “contingency management.” The 12-week program uses incentives, such as gift cards, to encourage people to stay in treatment. Plymouth Housing will run the program, which is expected to launch in the coming months, the mayor’s office said.

The mayor and Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz also kept things vague when describing how they planned to disrupt the distribution and sale of drugs. Diaz talked a lot about working with federal partners and keeping an eye on the State Legislature’s final call on how much to criminalize simple possession of drugs. Otherwise, the plan seemed pretty typical, with Diaz promising to go after the people bringing the drugs into communities rather than the people using drugs. 

The creativity really showed in the mayor’s plan for downtown activities. The city wants to fill 20 vacant storefronts through Seattle Restored, a program to connect these empty stores with small business owners, entrepreneurs, and local artists. The City also plans to invest in more lighting in areas of downtown, as well as more litter removal and graffiti abatement. City Hall Park will reopen, and it’ll get a jumbo chessboard, 24/7 security, and movie nights. Harrell also wants to encourage organizers to request more downtown street closures for special events such as “on-street pickleball competitions.”