Fentanyl Task Force Agrees on Need for Evidence-Based Court Alternatives—With One Notable Exception

Photo by Andrew Engelson

By Erica C. Barnett

A task force convened by Mayor Bruce Harrell to come up with proposals to address illegal drug use in public spaces has been meeting for several weeks to discuss how Seattle’s court system can address a potential influx of cases from the City Attorney Ann Davison’s office. This summer, the council is expected to pass a new law empowering Davison’s office to prosecute people who use drugs in public by aligning Seattle’s municipal code with a new state law making public drug use or simple possession a gross misdemeanor, rather than a felony.

The city council rejected the proposal last month; Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who cast the deciding vote, plans to bring the measure back this summer and vote for it, a switch he says he feels comfortable making now that the task force’s work is underway. Only one of three sub-groups had met as of last week: The one focused on how the court will respond to a potential influx of new drug cases.

After just a couple of meetings, there appears to be broad consensus (with one exception that I’ll get to in a moment) in favor of expanding the Vital program, which provides intensive services to people with behavioral health issues, including addiction, and LEAD, a program run by Purpose Dignity Action (formerly the Public Defender Association, or PDA) that offers services and case management to people before they are arrested.

Even Davison, who unilaterally withdrew the city from community court earlier this year—ending a program that allowed some people to avoid charges by participating in short-term programs—is reportedly open to expanding programs that divert drug users away from jail.

The idea, according to Councilmember Andrew Lewis, is to focus on “things that fall way short of the court” level and “keep things as far away from the court as possible,” since the court has essentially no extra capacity to take on a flood of new drug cases.

The task force includes representatives from Davison’s office, the PDA, Seattle Municipal Court, and—since last week—the King County Department of Public Defense, which was excluded from Harrell’s initial list.

The group, according to Lewis, generally agrees the city should focus on “things that fall way short of the court” level and “keep [cases] as far away from the court as possible,” since Seattle Municipal Court has essentially no extra capacity to take on a flood of new drug cases.

“This conversation is really laying bare that a lot of policy discussions are based on assumptions that aren’t true,” Lewis said. “It really did call out that we could arrest everyone downtown for smoking fentanyl and the King County Jail wouldn’t be able to book them—so where does that leave us?”

The exception to this consensus, according to multiple sources, is City Councilmember Sara Nelson, who has expressed support for a new local misdemeanor drug court that would push people into long-term treatment instead of diversion or services based on harm reduction, such as medication assisted treatment and focused case management. Nelson—who has objected to funding PDA-run programs in the past—supports an abstinence-only approach to addiction and has argued that programs that provide methadone and suboxone to opiate addicts are “not aimed at long-term recovery.”

King County has a special drug court for people facing felony drug-related charges; defendants who opt in must go through a rigorous, abstinence-based program that includes mandatory treatment, frequent drug testing, and regular court appearances. The program is high-risk and high-reward: If a defendant completes the program, which lasts a minimum of 10 months, the charges are dropped. If they don’t, the judge can find them guilty and sentence them for their original felony, which could mean a long jail sentence.

For misdemeanors, the reward at the end of the process would be comparatively minuscule—the dismissal of low-level charges that don’t usually lead to jail sentences in the first place. It’s unclear how many, if any, misdemeanor defendants would opt in to such a court; currently, every drug court in Washington state is focused on felony-level offenses.

The group Harrell announced last month includes two other task forces, in addition to the one focused on the courts, that will discuss treatment and enforcement.

Lewis said that now that the work groups are meeting to discuss the best way to respond to public drug use, the legislation making public use a gross misdemeanor in Seattle is “almost a Macguffin”—a device that gets the plot going, but isn’t particularly significant in itself.

PDA co-director Lisa Daugaard agrees with that assessment. In an op/ed for PubliCola last month, she said the city’s primary focus should be on investing in evidence-based approaches to drug use and homelessness, regardless of whether the council gives Davison the authority to prosecute drug users.

11 thoughts on “Fentanyl Task Force Agrees on Need for Evidence-Based Court Alternatives—With One Notable Exception”

  1. This task force seems to include lots of very committed folks. But why are there no representatives from the Dept of Public Health on this task force? They’ve played a major role in documenting the local progression of fentanyl as well as providing insights into its far-reaching effects.

  2. I appreciate the mayor convening a task force bringing key legal and policy stakeholders together.
    This is the type of inclusive & collaborative process (that seemed to be missing for awhile but) has been part of Seattle/ King County public service culture for as long as I can remember.

    Inclusion builds relationships and trust across budgets and boundaries. “Not my problem, not in my budget,” gets replaced with “How can we help.” Not everyone will agree on everything. That is a given & and an essential part of the process. Acknowledging and recognizing disagreement is how the sausage gets made.

    If we are going to be able to meet the challenges & solve our problems, we all need to work together.

    I am hopeful.


  3. You are SO right! Just wait until this person has a mortgage and a family, or just grows up and struggles to pay their way in the world because of all the taxes they have to pay to support those choices.

  4. I am always amused by “evidence based”, which is the usual dodge that presupposes an earlier dependent political conclusion. Who and what is the target of policy? The “evidence based” gang presupposes that the target is what best benefits junkies and tweakers. Harm reduction, etc…

    However, I would bank that the general public views policy as “what benefits boring normies”, aka the classic Clinton “works hard and plays by the rules” type. For them, the question is what immediately clears the parks and streets so they can safely take themselves and/or their kids out to same. That is a radically different policy set which has different “evidence based” solutions, many of which contradict the ones in paragraph one.

    Until we establish the policy targets, this is just two camps talking past each other.

    1. “Junkies and tweakers” are often “boring normies” just like you and I. Many are just trying to get through the day without dying, or getting dope-sick (like nicotine withdrawal, thirst, hunger, or fatigue), which is a delicate balancing act. They’re not after a high, just to avoid pain, like everybody else. They already want treatment, but the existing treatment system is not set up to be accessible to most addicts, because it wouldn’t be profitable. We need to expand outpatient solutions and new innovations in treatment that are less of a place you go and more of a medication you are prescribed.

      1. And again, the presupposition is to provide bennies to junkies and tweakers. They sky is the limit here to be paid by boring middle class normies. It’s just what they deserve, really.

  5. The best argument to be made here is that what Daugard and those of her ilk recommend IS NOT WORKING. We continue to have open drug dealing and use, people using the streets as their toilets. And all this bunch, and the city, apparently, want is for that to continue with fewer and fewer if any consequences. Meanwhile, the non-politician citizens are fed up with this stuff and want it to stop NOW. These folks don’t care what they’re doing to the majority’s quality of life. How much coddling do they expect in return for flouting all civil norms? Sick of it!

    1. Our government is not based on the Bible. Puritan views on substance use, whether alcohol or poppy derivatives or ephedra stimulants, are not part of any constitution or city charter. There’s a reason they had to amend the constitution to prohibit drinking. Open dealing of plastic products bothers me as much or more as blues apparently piss you off, but you have to find a way to promote the general welfare that doesn’t violate anybody’s civil rights – because addiction is a disability. “People using the streets as toilets” is a separate, exaggerated but important, issue that calls for more public toilets. Sincerely, a non-politician citizen with many non-politician friends who agree.

      1. Well, of course I respect your right to believe what you believe, and I do so unreservedly and without any of your smug snark. We’ll see how long you love this world you find so idyllic. I suspect that this will last until you are personally victimized–maybe forced to buy some plastic product, or go somewhere in a SOV, or whatever else you’re loving now that may not always please you as much. Blues don’t piss me off; the behavior of folks who use them out in the public ways where we can’t avoid seeing them is the problem with those, heroin, meth, pick your poison–I don’t like the behavior these things seem to engender. And no, I don’t see addiction as a disability unless disabilities now spring from individual choices that then lead people who become addicted as a result of their choices to behave horribly in public and to expect the rest of us to feel sorry for them and to pay their way for the rest of their blighted days. So I wish you well and hope your utopia comes to pass, but I’m not holding my breath.

      2. And right here is the perfect example of what I mentioned, above. To this person, the solution to these problems is simply to tax the boring normies even more to provide services to junkies and tweakers. They piss in the streets, tax the normies for public toilets! They trash the toilets, tax the normies for staff to clean them. There is simply no amount of the boring middle class normies money, or loss of middle class normie services that is enough in the cause of helping junkies and tweakers! It’s just science!

        That’s fine, but you can’t be shocked when the boring normies rebel at the voting booth.

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