After a lengthy Seattle City Council hearing Tuesday, Council Member Andrew Lewis voted against a measure to allow Republican City Attorney Ann Davison to prosecute people for drug possession and public drug use. However, the measure isn’t dead, and Lewis doesn’t oppose it on principle. On Wednesday, he plans to convene stakeholders, including members of the Mayor’s office, to sketch a plan for creating a Seattle Municipal Court (SMC) able to fulfill the State Legislature’s promise–that of a kinder, gentler drug war.

The City can make the changes he wants to see in the municipal court using “existing resources,” Lewis said in a phone interview. He could not yet provide more details, but broadly he wants to make resources available for varying levels of needs, everything from pretrial diversion to restarting Community Court to creating a therapeutic drug court.

“Let’s leverage our positions to put a continuum of options in place, and then let’s pass the statute; let’s change the order of this process,” Lewis said.

In part, Lewis said he switched his vote after hearing Council Member Lisa Herbold point out how little transparency Davison provided when she’d pulled the City Attorney’s Office out of Community Court, a program supporters say helped resolve misdemeanor cases quickly, which connected people to services faster. A letter from more than 100 doctors calling for a more measured and thoughtful approach to the new state law also swayed Lewis to vote no on the bill.

The proposal to empower Davison to prosecute more kinds of drug crimes failed 5-4, surprising Council Member Sara Nelson, who’d sponsored the bill alongside Council Member Alex Pedersen. Throughout the public comment period, people voiced concerns about how the new cases could increase court costs, add hundreds of new criminal cases to a system already groaning under a hefty caseload, and hurt people with addiction.

The bill skipped its normal committee process and went straight to the full Council Tuesday. Council President Debora Juarez said she took the expedited route due to the fact that state lawmakers scheduled the new statewide drug law to take effect on July 1. The new law will make drug possession and public use a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in jail for a first or second offense and 364 days for any additional offenses. 

The new law replaces a stopgap measure the Legislature passed in 2021 after the state Supreme Court struck down the state’s felony drug possession law in a case called State v. Blake. 

Despite the City Council never adopting the misdemeanor passed in 2021, Nelson repeatedly said Tuesday the adoption was a standard part of city procedure. However, Council Member Teresa Mosqueda pushed back against that idea, citing King County Public Defender Office Director Anita Khandelwal, who pointed to multiple other instances where the City didn’t codify state law into Seattle Municipal Code, including other misdemeanor offenses updated in the past Legislative session.

Nelson pointed out that King County Prosecuting Attorney Leesa Manion told the Council her office didn’t want the cases and couldn’t handle a new genre of misdemeanor cases. King County handled all drug possession cases prior to 2021, though under former Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg the office rarely prosecuted anyone for only carrying a small amount of drugs back when that crime was a felony, or the office made a practice of reducing the charge to a misdemeanor.

King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office spokesperson Casey McNerthney said before Blake felony prosecutors handled drug crime in King County Superior Court. The new state law would have King County District Court prosecutors handling the cases, and so if the City wanted King County to handle the cases, then the County and City would need to negotiate a contract. However, McNerthney said if Seattle Police officers plan to refer these cases, the sensible place to send them would be to the City Attorney’s office.

In response to the vote, Davison released a false statement claiming “Seattle will now be the only municipality in the State of Washington where it is legal to use hard drugs in public.”

In a news release Tuesday night, Herbold accused Davison of professional misconduct for issuing a false statement. Even though the Council didn’t adopt the new legislation, the state law will still take effect in July, but police would refer any charges under that statute to Manion rather than to the City Attorney’s Office. 

On Twitter, ACLU of Washington Director of Political Strategies Alison Holcomb pointed out that current city law makes drug use on buses and at bus stops a misdemeanor, and so the City Attorney can already prosecute those cases. Cops also have the authority to confiscate drugs. 

During public comment on the bill Tuesday, Rev. Harriett Walden, co-founder of Mothers for Police Accountability, spoke in support of the bill and said not to equate the new gross misdemeanor law with the policies of the past drug war, because prosecutors filed felonies against people under drug war policies. Felonies disenfranchise people, Walden said. 

However, multiple people pushed back against Walden’s comments, including Liletha Williams, who represented Who’s Streets? Our Streets and who was one of the last people to give public comment. Misdemeanors damaged Williams’s life long-term, making it impossible for her to work. Now, she said, she must continue to work at the age of 62, all because of her drug addiction 30 years ago.

“Those misdemeanors destroyed my life, and my opportunity for my children to have a better life. They are not just misdemeanors, this is my life,” Williams said.