In a 6-3 vote on Tuesday, the Seattle City Council adopted an ordinance making drug possession and public drug use a gross misdemeanor. The crime carries a penalty of up to 180 days in jail for a first or second offense and up to 364 days for any additional offenses.

While the bill encourages cops to divert people to services before arrest, the legislation provides no additional funding, rendering its advertised “treatment-centered approach” a “false promise,” Council Member Teresa Mosqueda said during a contentious public meeting. 

The three votes against the bill included Council Members Mosqueda, Tammy Morales, and Kshama Sawant. Andrew Lewis and Lisa Herbold cosponsored the legislation, and they voted for it along with Sara Nelson, Alex Pedersen, Dan Strauss, and Debora Juarez. 

The City modeled its bill closely after the one passed by the Washington State Legislature in May. Like the state law, the Council’s bill provides clear(ish) language that sets diversion as the City’s standard and that recommends arrests only when someone poses a “threat of harm to others.”

Much of that framework depends on an executive order that Mayor Bruce Harrell plans to publish “in the next week,” according to a statement his office released after the vote, and on the way the Seattle Police Department implements his guidance on the definition of “threat of harm.” Even without the Mayor’s guidance, in its memo about the bill council staff said nothing prevents officers from making an arrest under the ordinance. But if they do, boy, they’ll have to fill out some extra paperwork.

Nothing in the ordinance expands options for diversion, a process that typically lasts longer than a court case, involves multiple interventions, and often requires a caseworker. 

“Is it the best? No. Is it an answer to everything? Absolutely not. But I am confident,” Council President Juarez said before claiming the ordinance represented a therapeutic approach to drug addiction.

Despite rhetoric coming from the Mayor and the Council’s conservatives, Mosqueda said the bill “doubles down” on the City’s criminalization approach, giving additional prosecutorial power to Republican City Attorney Ann Davison instead of addressing the ongoing lack of resources needed for treatment in the community. 

Council Member Tammy Morales put a finer point on it. In addition to not expanding treatment or diversion, she argued the bill will do nothing to stop public drug use because the people cops will target have nowhere to go. 

Mosqueda also scoffed at Harrell and Council conservatives touting the $27 million in treatment funding added to this bill after Lewis delayed this vote in June with a bit of political theater. Seven million dollars of that pot comes from unspent capital project grant funding, and the remaining $20 million comes from opioid settlement funds that must be spent over the course of 17 years. The Mayor’s office has not yet proposed legislation appropriating that money.

Council Member Herbold argued the bill was “not a solution,” but she and Lewis said that including language supportive of diversion over arrest amounted to some sort of achievement.