By Lisa Daugaard
Seattle can continue to lead the country toward a productive approach to substance use and related problems. This is true no matter what happens when the City Council votes next week on a proposed ordinance, sponsored by Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen and supported by City Attorney Ann Davison, creating gross misdemeanors under the Seattle Municipal Code for drug possession and public drug use.
If the ordinance is defeated, its proponents are still correct that we need far more urgency in responding to the drug crisis playing out throughout the city. If it passes, its opponents are still correct that the answer to drug-related problems does not generally lie in jailing and prosecuting people for substance use. Whatever happens next week, the work before us is the same: Take the field-leading models our community has devised to foster recovery for people who are most marginalized and exposed to the legal system, and secure the resources needed for those models to have their full impact.
When responding to problematic drug use, we cannot be satisfied with engagement for its own sake. As necessary as overdose prevention and reversal and preventing disease transmission are, they are not sufficient. We have to tackle how people are living, not just prevent deaths.
As a community, we have long known and broadly agreed on what can work well to respond to individuals who use substances in a problematic way: engagement without judgment; pre-booking diversion and pre-arrest referrals to intensive case management; well-designed low barrier interim and permanent housing options for those who are living unsheltered, as well as long-term case management for people whose use is related to complex trauma and lack of other support systems.
These approaches have been branded under names such as LEAD, Housing First, JustCARE, and harm reduction, but they all share elements of evidence-based, well-researched, trauma-informed care strategies and behavior change theory. Indeed, experts in our midst have quietly been teaching other communities how to implement these approaches, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade.
Seattle led the nation in reducing arrests, jail bookings, and prosecutions for drug possession long before the 2021 Washington Supreme Court Blake decision. The fact that there is an ordinance authorizing arrest, jail and prosecution for an offense does not dictate that it be used in a stupid, counter-productive, and evidence-defying way
What we have never done is bring these approaches to scale. Despite a unanimous City Council resolution in 2019 committing Seattle to make LEAD diversion resources available in all appropriate cases, current funding limits require turning down the majority of appropriate referrals. Nor have we complemented this approach with the housing and income supports many people need to make real breakthroughs. CoLEAD and the JustCARE model, funded by temporary COVID relief dollars, began to fill that gap over the last few years, but their future is uncertain as federal relief funding recedes.
It is absolutely true that, all other things being equal, court cases and criminal charges tend to impede recovery, for complex reasons including stigma, collateral consequences, the challenge of making it to court, and the difficulty of making even well-intentioned lawyers into trauma-informed practitioners. Jail and the inherent trauma it represents, including lack of physical autonomy for people who have often been physically abused, almost always impedes recovery. These should not be the primary strategy or the first resort in our response to problematic drug use. Those objecting to the new proposed ordinance are right to raise these issues.
Yet Seattle led the nation in reducing arrests, jail bookings, and prosecutions for drug possession long before the 2021 Washington Supreme Court Blake decision. The fact that there is an ordinance authorizing arrest, jail and prosecution for an offense does not dictate that it be used in a stupid, counter-productive, and evidence-defying way. We made enormous progress as a community, and developed a consensus approach to these issues, while there was still a valid felony drug possession law in place across the state that was fully available to local officers. Police and prosecutor discretion—and the support of city and county public officials and law enforcement leaders—meant that, while the authority to jail and prosecute existed, it was rarely used.
Mayor Bruce Harrell, who has prioritized action on conditions downtown and in the Chinatown/International District, oversees the Seattle Police Department, and has gone out of his way to make clear that he has no intention of arresting, jail or referring drug users for prosecution. And the authors of the new proposed ordinance making drug possession and public use a local crime were not even proposing criminalizing simple drug possession in Seattle until Governor Jay Inslee pressured the legislature to pass a law creating these crimes statewide. It’s regrettable that lawmakers removed the option of local choice, which would have resulted in de facto legalization of possession and private use in Seattle and King County. But it’s worth recalling that, before Inslee’s choice drove us down this road, Davison, Nelson, and Pedersen, to their credit, were championing only a very narrow role for the legal system.
We can use best practices with or without the proposed law. In six months, for example, it will be far more important whether the multi-partner Third Avenue Project is still going on—and the 400-plus people who use drugs, live unsheltered, and are having a problematic impact in the Third Avenue corridor received supportive housing and intensive case management— than whether there is formal jurisdiction for the City Attorney to prosecute these two, of many, offenses that people who use substances often commit.
Drug possession and public use are now gross misdemeanors across the state—including in Seattle. Nothing local officials can do now can formally decriminalize either. It’s evident that some local leaders feel that taking an enforcement role completely off the table sends a message that serious drug issues are unimportant or low priority, and it’s also evident that other local officials cannot stomach any steps that formally invoke the prospect of criminal system consequences for what are fundamentally health and wellness issues.
It’s important to recognize that defeating the ordinance would not in itself represent a progressive approach to drug issues. Let’s fight hardest for what will matter most: whether we actually mobilize the community-based care approach that most people in Seattle support, go and get our people, demand the housing and income support that people need to recover, and provide the wrap-around care without which there is nearly zero chance for stabilization and healing. As it stands, regardless of whether this ordinance passes, we aren’t close to scaling the plan we need—even though we know exactly what it is.
Lisa Daugaard is the Co-Executive Director for Purpose Dignity Action (PDA) (formerly the Public Defender Association), a longtime drug policy reform organization that provides project management for local LEAD diversion initiatives, technical support for other jurisdictions implementing pre-booking diversion models, and partners on the JustCARE and Third Avenue Project initiatives.