At a press conference Monday afternoon, Mayor Bruce Harrell promised to spend the next few weeks designing a plan to implement a new state law criminalizing public use and simple possession of illegal drugs. His announcement sought to placate the Seattle City Attorney, who falsely accused the Seattle City Council of legalizing drugs last week after it voted down a bill to adopt the state law, and also the downtown business community, who demanded an “urgent” response to the fentanyl crisis. 

Harrell used the conference to speak directly to the City’s cops, who we’d forgive for chuckling at the Mayor’s muddy guarantee of a clear direction forward: “Our officers want clarity on what they should do, so let me be clear, they will have that clarity in the work that we’re going to do in the next coming weeks,” he said.

But he did make one thing clear: the Council will pass a bill to adopt the new state law and allow Republican City Attorney Ann Davison to prosecute drug possession and public use as a gross misdemeanor. At the same time, he said, the law the Council adopts must include a strategy for officers to get people who need treatment into treatment. 

He then announced a task force created as a subset of the broader Fentanyl Systems Work Group he launched earlier this year as part of his effort to revitalize downtown.

Harrell appeared defensive of both the notion that Seattle wasn’t safe–he rattled off a series of statistics about dropping crime rates–and the notion that last week’s vote amounted to a reboot of Seattle's drug war. He pointed to others standing behind him at the podium, including Seattle and King County NAACP President Darrell Powell and Washington State African American Cannabis Association President Jim Buchanan, both of whom lived through the drug war with him, he said. He went on to say that he believes many people who use drugs need help to get healthy, and he called his plan to make a plan a “war on health”—not a “war on drugs.” 

At one point, Harrell got choked up and asked the question: “Do you think for a moment I will lead this city without compassion?”

The answer to Harrell’s question depends on the strategy his assembled work group concocts to address drug addiction in Seattle within the criminalization framework laid out by the Washington State Legislature. The work group has about three weeks to create a complex set of new policies involving law enforcement and a Republican City Attorney that also satisfies Harrell’s goal of not filling the King County Jail with “sick people.” 

The work group must complete the strategy on a compressed timeline because the new state law takes effect July 1 and 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 City’s rush seems a little manufactured, given the fact that the new law will replace a stopgap measure that the City never adopted. The Legislature passed the stopgap in 2021 after the state Supreme Court struck down Washington’s felony drug law as unconstitutional in a case called State v. Blake. The temporary law made drug possession a misdemeanor and required police to refer someone to treatment at least twice before arrest. The new gross misdemeanor allows cops and prosecutors to divert for treatment but does not require it. 

After the Legislature passed the new statewide drug law during a mid-May special session, Council Members Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen, along with City Attorney Ann Davison, pushed the Council to adopt the new law into city code in order to allow Davison’s office to prosecute the cases. 

That measure failed last Tuesday after Council Member Andrew Lewis cast the deciding vote against it, saying the bill lacked a plan for implementation and highlighting his concerns about Davison’s decision to dissolve Community Court about a week before the vote. On the dais, Lewis said he imagined Community Court as an appropriate place for some of these lower-level drug crimes, as supporters of the court program said it helped resolve misdemeanor cases quickly, which connected people to services faster.

Harrell asked both Lewis and Nelson to join his 24-member work group in order to help create a new, more thoughtful bill for the Council to pass. Other organizations participating in the work include Seattle Municipal Court judges, Davison and members of her leadership team, Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz, and Purpose Dignity Action Co-Executive Director Lisa Daugaard, as well as other leaders in diversion and human service provision.

Notably, the work group did not include representatives from the King County Department of Public Defense. The Mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a question about why it did not invite public defenders to the work group. In a news release, the Mayor’s office did promise to bring more treatment providers and public health experts into the conversation in coming weeks.

In the aftermath of the vote, Lewis reasserted the importance of a renewed Community Court program, but Daugaard said she and other representatives from LEAD–a program that allows police to divert people to services instead of arresting them–hope to design the new city ordinance with a heavy emphasis on diversion. Court processes, no matter how well-intentioned, run counter to a recovery-based approach, she said. 

“Generally speaking, people need to be working on getting their primary needs met, and court is a secondary set of obligations, so if that can be avoided it works better in many cases,” Daugaard said.