On Monday Mayor Bruce Harrell shared what could become Seattle’s new drug ordinance, which includes increased funding for treatment services and a request for the Seattle Police Department to direct cops to pick diversion over jail in most cases where they catch someone carrying drugs or using in public. However, people who criticized a similar bill in June remain wary of the Mayor’s plan to address the opioid crisis using the criminal legal system, and the people who wanted to see a drug war reboot didn’t say anything bad about the bill. 

Public Safety Committee Chair Lisa Herbold said she planned to hear the bill in her committee before the council recesses on August 21. 

Harrell said he’d issue an executive order next week with more guidance on how SPD should apply the law, including a way to decide when drug possession requires an arrest, as well as how the City plans to measure success in responding to public drug use. If cops do arrest somebody under the state's new gross misdemeanor statute, then the City wants cops to say why. 

The order and the new law both come out of a workgroup Harrell created in the aftermath of a June council meeting, during which the Council declined to pass an ordinance allowing Republican City Attorney Ann Davison to prosecute people for drug possession and public drug use.

Up until 2021, the King County Prosecuting Attorney handled drug possession cases under the state felony law. That year, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that law unconstitutional in State v. Blake. For next two years, the state operated under a temporary stopgap measure that effectively decriminalized drug possession. In a May special session, the Washington State Legislature passed a new law that made drug possession and public drug 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.

In June, Council Members Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen sponsored an ordinance to adopt that new state law. Council Member Andrew Lewis cast the deciding ‘no’ vote at that meeting, saying he wanted a full understanding of how the City planned to handle drug possession cases and therapeutic courts. This bill doesn't give him those courts, but over the phone Monday Lewis said his time on the Mayor’s workgroup assured him the City intends to front-load treatment rather than send people to jail.

The new proposed ordinance Lewis plans to cosponsor includes a promise of $27 million in funding for addiction treatment facilities and programs, with $7 million coming this year from capital funding. The City plans to direct the money toward post-overdose care, opioid secession medication delivery, health hub services, long-term addiction care, and drop-in support, according to a release from the Mayor’s office. 

The Mayor’s office expects to share more details about those services after providers go through a competitive bidding process for that funding. The remaining $20 million comes from opioid lawsuit settlements and goes toward continuing to expand these programs in the long term. The lawsuit settlements spread out that money over 18 years and equates to about $1.14 million per year, according to the Mayor’s office.

The organizations that opposed the bill in June remain critical of the Mayor’s proposal, despite giving some begrudging kudos to the Mayor for finding additional treatment funding. King County Public Defenders Union President Molly Gilbert wanted to empower Seattle Municipal Court judges to divert cases when cops arrest someone, but instead the bill leaves all the power to dismiss charges in the hands of the City Attorney.

The ACLU of Washington’s Smart Justice Policy Program Director Jazmyn Clark said the proposal still echoes War on Drugs policies by relying on the criminal legal system to connect people with these services. 

“Leading with criminal sanctions are, and always have been, rooted in public shaming and do little to save lives,” Clark said.

No critique came from the people who supported the original bill in June. Seattle Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rachel Smith issued a statement encouraging the Council to pass the bill. 

In an emailed statement Monday, Nelson basically said the bill does what she wants by making public drug use and drug possession a gross misdemeanor with the goal–not the requirement–of diverting people into treatment. 

At the same time, Purpose Dignity Action Co-director Lisa Daugaard, who sat on the Mayor’s task force and also co-founded LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion), a framework that encourages cops to divert people prior to arrest, said people shouldn’t dismiss the significance of Harrell’s coming executive order, as it would put on record that the he wants pre-arrest diversion in most drug possession and public use cases.

Editor's note: This story was fixed to reflect that the Council has not yet set a date to hear the drug ordinance in committee.