After Watering Down Language About Diversion, Committee Moves Drug Criminalization Bill Forward

By Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle City Council’s public safety committee approved legislation on Tuesday that will empower City Attorney Ann Davison to prosecute people for public drug use and simple possession. Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda cast the lone “no” vote, saying the council should be “focusing how on how we get people into public health services, not how we double down and recreate a punitive system … to prosecute more people.” Committee chair Lisa Herbold, along with Councilmembers Andrew Lewis, Sara Nelson, and Alex Pedersen, voted yes.

The legislation now heads to the full council, which will take it up on September 26—or sooner, if Herbold and council president Debora Juarez decide to amend council rules to push it through faster.

Substantively, the bill is more or less the same as a version the council narrowly rejected, with Lewis casting the deciding vote, in June; that is, it criminalizes public drug use and simple drug possession at the local level, mostly aligning the city’s law with state legislation that made public drug use and simple possession gross misdemeanors earlier this year. (Unlike state law, the city bill exempts cannabis.)

The newest version, which includes pages of new “whereas” clauses describing the fentanyl addiction crisis and stipulating that the city does not want another drug war, says police should show a preference for diversion to treatment and other programs when deciding whether to book people for drug use or possession. The new reference to diversion mirrors the new state law, which says that police are “encouraged to offer a referral” to treatment or  diversion programs “in lieu of arrest.”

Proponents of the bill, including Lewis, called this new clause a substantive change that helped transform the bill into a “balanced” piece of legislation. “What we’re really focusing on here is how to take full advantage of our provider community and the resources that they bring to to the forefront to facilitate warm handoffs from law enforcement” into programs like LEAD (Let Everyone Advance With Dignity), a successful pre-arrest diversion program, Lewis said. The state law adopted earlier this year also encourages LEAD referrals, mentioning the program by name 36 times.

“We have spent the last three years finding one-time funding sources to plug that gap at LEAD. If the funding gap from last year is the same [in Harrell’s 2024 budget], it will start to impugn our ability to actually do what this bill purports that it will do.”—Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda

For those who end up arrested under the new law, Lewis said, the legislation also provides the option of pre-trial diversion, in which the city attorney’s office would decline to file charges if a person agreed to go through one of several programs offered through Davison’s office. “If they complete that referral, then they decline the the case,” Lewis said during a recent episode of the Seattle Channel’s “Seattle Inside/Out.”. “They won’t pursue it. Incredibly effective program. Twice as many people who go through pre-file diversion do not re-offend as people who go to jail. Very important statistic.”

While this may be true, as PubliCola has reported, the city’s pre-trial diversion programs are targeted toward young adults and people who are generally high-functioning; they are specifically inappropriate for the chronically homeless and profoundly addicted people the drug legislation is meant to target.

An amendment by Sara Nelson removed language requiring officers “make a reasonable attempt to contact and coordinate efforts for diversion, outreach, and other alternatives to arrest consider diversion” before arresting someone under the law. That amendment, which passed 3-2 (with Mosqueda and Herbold voting “no”) effectively means that it will be up to officers to decide whether to direct people to diversion based on unidentified criteria. The bill says that the mayor plans to issue an executive order stating that diversion is the city’s “standard approach.”

Some councilmembers appeared reassured by this rhetoric, as well as apparent closed-door commitments from Harrell’s office to find money for diversion programs, which are chronically underfunded. But as Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda noted at Tuesday’s meeting, the bill itself commits no new funding to any of the city’s existing diversion programs, which are already stretched thin. This means that the council is putting great faith in Harrell’s budget, which won’t be released until late September. Historically, the mayor’s budget has underfunded diversion programs like LEAD, leading the council to add funding to keep existing programs going.

“We have spent the last three years finding one-time funding sources to plug that gap at LEAD,” Mosqueda noted. “If the funding gap from last year is the same [in Harrell’s 2024 budget], it will start to impugn our ability to actually do what this bill purports that it will do.”

Additionally, Mosqueda noted, the city faces a budget shortfall, starting in 2025, of more than $200 million a year. “Everyone should have that front and center,” she said.

Without new funding, the primary impact of this recommendation could be that existing diversion programs, such as LEAD, start getting new referrals primarily from police, instead of the community-based referrals that now make up the bulk of their work. For most of its existence, LEAD stood for “Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion”; last year, the group changed its name to reflect the shift in its priorities. Reverting to the old model would mean, “effectively, that the only entry point to LEAD is by a police officer,” Mosqueda said.

The committee also voted 3-2 for another amendment from Nelson that water down the second purportedly substantive change to the legislation, which originally would have required officers to use their discretion and judgment to “determine whether the individual, through their actions and conduct, presents a threat of harm to others” before making an arrest.” Nelson’s amendment changes “will” to “may,” making the use of discretion itself discretionary.

The change won’t have much practical impact, since the original version of the bill already defined “harm to others” so broadly it included any “street disorder” witnessed by “businesses, transit riders, and people traveling to school, work, retail stores, or trying to enjoy the City’s parks and other public places.”

But it does codify the notion that police officers get “confused,” as Nelson put it, “in the moment [about] … what we are expecting them to do,” and that requiring them to use their judgment before arresting drug users will make it harder for them to do their jobs (and, presumably, drive them away). “There are practical concerns for officers and prosecutors … includ[ing] time burdens and confusion for the prosecution of criminal cases to time burdens and confusion for officers that are trying to enforce our laws,” Nelson said. Given recent revelations about the way officers behave behind closed doors, one could reasonably argue that officers need more oversight and guidance from the city, not less.

Earlier in the meeting, Mosqueda proposed tightening the definition of “harm to others” to include only physical harm, as opposed to feeling uncomfortable or unsafe. That amendment failed, after Nelson said that someone “being exposed to fentanyl” should be enough to justify an arrest. During public comment, Rev. Harriett Walden, a member of the Community Police Commission, said she “had a fentanyl exposure and almost died.” According to numerous studies, fentanyl vapor contains almost no trace of the drug, and does not pose any physical risk to people who aren’t smoking it.

5 thoughts on “After Watering Down Language About Diversion, Committee Moves Drug Criminalization Bill Forward”

  1. Very sad how the changes in the language simply move the discretionary action down to the level of the police officer. We have all seen how their discretion seems to go…

  2. It appears the new legislation helps build in the use of discretion from point of contact to disposition:
    The police have discretion whether to arrest or offer a referral. The city attorney’s office has discretion whether to prosecute, offer pre-trial diversion, or not charge at all. Judges always have a range of discretion at disposition.

    Often discretion is limited by the availability or lack of resources. There are not enough cells to lock everybody up (not that it would be indicated) there are also not enough inpatient treatment beds to send everyone there. That doesn’t mean we throw up our hands, or point fingers. We need to maximize or use and knowledge of what is available. Inpatient treatment is not the only answer.

    Seattle/King County in the world of social services is considered “resource rich.” We have an extensive network of community mental health agencies from one end of the county to the other.
    These mental health agencies provide a full range of outpatient mental health services to a predominantly Medicaid funded population. They are private non profits under the oversight of the King County RSN.

    They are no strangers to working together or with community stakeholders. They have the ability to ramp up capacity and special services far more quickly and at a much lower cost than building new facilities. I believe working with the existing agencies and resources we already have will yield far quicker and more positive results than taking a ground up approach.

    Thank you,


  3. If it doesn’t come with 200 treatment beds and support services extending for several years, you’ll just be whistlin’ Dixie…

  4. Not only must we look forward to a worse Council next year, but this Council seems to have lost its way — except for Mosqueda, who is apparently the only progressive left. I can’t understand why Lewis and Herbold have essentially joined the Nelson pack. And here we are, back in the tender mercies of the SPD, who very well know that there are very few openings for rational drug treatment, and thus don’t need to even try to refer.

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