Three months after Seattle City Council Member Andrew Lewis promised to launch a more thoughtful drug war, the Council’s Public Safety Committee advanced a proposed drug ordinance that looks a lot like the one they voted down in June. The new bill creates no new diversion options, guarantees very little new funding, and ultimately just adopts the state law the Legislature passed in May. The only new stuff includes a data dashboard, an advisory committee, and a hope that Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) stays fully funded. Thoughtful! 

The state law 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. Council Members Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen wanted to adopt that new state law back in June. Lewis cast the tiebreaking ‘no’ vote at that meeting, saying he wanted a full understanding of how the City planned to handle drug possession cases and therapeutic courts.

At the beginning of August, Mayor Bruce Harrell and Lewis announced the new proposed ordinance and promised a series of executive orders all focused on expanding treatment for people with substance abuse disorder. Lewis didn’t get his therapeutic courts, but Harrell promised $27 million in funding for treatment. However, $20 million of that came out of opioid lawsuit settlement money to be spent over 18 years, which I pointed out at the time. During the discussion of the bill at today’s committee hearing, Council Member Teresa Mosqueda said that the $20 million Harrell’s office found at most works out to less than a million dollars per year in additional funding for treatment programs. The other $7 million comes from unspent federal grant funding for capital projects. And at this point no council member has proposed legislation actually appropriating that money

Toward the end of the committee meeting, Mosqueda pointed out that all the same questions from June remained. The Council still doesn’t know how much diversion programs will cost and still isn’t proposing any funding for it. Harrell hasn’t shared his executive orders, and council staff said in a memo that they couldn’t predict how the Seattle Police Department would implement its arrest policy because agency leaders wouldn’t write that policy until Harrell shared his executive orders. Jamie Housen, spokesman for the Mayor’s office, said he didn’t expect Harrell to publish his orders before the vote, calling it presumptive to publish the orders before the Council passes the bill.

Up until today’s public safety committee meeting, the City’s proposed ordinance at least had slightly more forceful language around diversion than the state law. Where the state law “encouraged” law enforcement officers to refer people to treatment rather than arrest them, the City ordinance said SPD officers “will not arrest” when a person’s public drug use only harmed themselves. However, Nelson added two late amendments, one of which changed the bill to say, “An officer may arrest at the officer’s discretion to avoid additional self harm.” The amendment passed with Lewis, Pedersen, and Nelson voting ‘yes’, and Mosqueda and Public Safety Committee Chair Lisa Herbold voting ‘no’. Herbold co-sponsored the underlying ordinance with Lewis. 

I asked Lewis what he saw as the major difference between his proposed bill and the bill he voted down in June, and he said his and Herbold’s bill made it the City’s policy to divert for treatment rather than arrest. However, part of Nelson’s justification for her amendments indicated that the Council legally could not direct SPD arrest policies, though she didn’t expand beyond that. The bill does create a behavioral health advisory committee, though, and the state bill did not. The details of that advisory committee still need to be worked out, Herbold said. An amendment from Pedersen also requires the City to collect more data about substance abuse arrests, such as the number of cases dismissed, deferred, and referred for prosecution. 

Herbold, Nelson, Pedersen and Lewis passed the bill out of committee and sent it to the full Council. Mosqueda voted ‘no,’ causing a split vote. The bill may go to Council on Sept 26, rather than Sept 19, because the Council normally gives other members an extra week to review a bill that didn’t get unanimous approval in committee.