Mayor Bruce Harrell issued an executive order on Thursday providing direction to the Seattle Police Department as it develops policies to implement a recently passed law that makes public drug use, along with simple possession, a gross misdemeanor. The law also criminalizes simple drug possession and empowers the city attorney, Ann Davison, to prosecute drug cases. The new law does not apply to public use of alcohol or cannabis.
The order, which describes fentanyl use as a “health crisis,” says that “diversion and referral to services is the preferred response to public possession and use” in instances where police determine a drug user poses no potential harm to anyone else. But it also says that arrests may be appropriate when a drug user poses a “threat of harm to others,” then defines this potential “harm” broadly, to include any drug use that impacts “the ability of others to use shared public space.”
The drug law adopted last week defines “harm to others” in similarly expansive terms, asserting that “unchecked” drug use “in certain areas of the city” harms “businesses, transit riders, and people traveling to school, work, retail stores, or trying to enjoy the City’s parks and other public places.”
SPD is expected to issue its own guidelines to officers who will be implementing the law within the next few days.
The executive order, echoing the Harrell Administration’s earlier effort to prosecute “disorderly conduct” near transit stops on Third Ave., specifically notes that locations where drug use presents an “inherent impact on public safety and security” may include any location “in or within close proximity to a transit stop, rail station, or other transportation structure or facility.”
Harrell’s order is mostly suggestive rather than prescriptive. Officers who believe a person’s drug use inherently threatens those around them can decide, based on their training and “the totality of the circumstances,” to arrest a person or attempt to divert them to LEAD, the city’s primary diversion program. The number of arrests that officers will actually make is constrained by the booking capacity of the downtown jail, which is severely limited due to a shortage of guards.
The order also requires outreach providers that contract with the city to create a “by-name list” of every person “significantly affected by” the opioid crisis in downtown Seattle between the Denny Triangle and the stadiums south of the Chinatown/International District. (Since the new law and the rest of the executive order refers only to people using drugs in public, it’s safe to assume the list will exclude housed downtown residents who use addictive drugs indoors.)
Jamie Housen, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said the city “is not planning to collect a list of names or individual clients, but instead to use an approach that creates a baseline estimate of those using drugs and in need of treatment and services, so that we can measure those needs, changes over time, and if progress is occurring.”
Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness, said the order released on Thursday “inappropriately uses a By-Name List,” which is supposed to be “a tool used by people who are offering focused engagement and have appropriate resources to connect people with.”
Providers that serve unsheltered people often create “by-name lists” of people living in a discrete area, such as an encampment, in order to keep track of them as part of a specific project. Recently, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority acknowledged that its own effort to create a “by-name list” of every unhoused person downtown, as part of the Partnership for Zero effort that recently folded, was unproductive, because people can and do move around.
Data on drug users from providers, including the number of drug users they’re serving downtown and the kinds of issues those individuals are facing, “will help determine how many individuals the City is trying to assist and to provide a better understanding of the underlying issues and facts addressed by this [order].” After 12 months, according to the order, the city will “conduct a follow-up assessment” and compare the two sets of data “to gauge the effectiveness of the strategies” in the order.
Council members who switched their votes on the drug law, a version of which failed back in June after Andrew Lewis decided to vote against it, said they were convinced to vote “yes,” in part, by the mayor’s promise to propose an executive order that would emphasize diversion over arrest. Before Harrell issued the order out on Thursday, Lewis said he expected that it would “provide clarification” on how the city will implement the new law. We’ve reached out to Lewis for comment on the order.
On Wednesday, the Seattle City Council adopted a new law empowering City Attorney Ann Davison to prosecute people who use drugs in public, or who are caught with illegal drugs other than cannabis, on a 6-3 vote, with every council member except Teresa Mosqueda, Kshama Sawant, and Tammy Morales voting “yes.” The new law makes public drug use and simple possession gross misdemeanors for the first time in Seattle history.
An earlier version of the bill, which would have incorporated a new state drug criminalization law into the city’s municipal code, died on a 5-4 vote after Councilmember Andrew Lewis, a former city prosecutor, changed his mind in response to public testimony and Davison’s decision to unilaterally end a local therapeutic court called community court. The state law is as the “Blake fix” because it re-criminalized drug possession and public use after the state supreme court overturned an existing law that made public drug use and simple possession a felony.
The new version of the bill is significantly longer, but substantively similar, to the previous legislation. The new bill is significantly wordier, largely because it now includes more than 30 nonbinding “whereas” clauses stating the city’s intent to, among other things: Strongly recommend that police consider diversion before making arrests; avoid “repeating the mistakes of the past”; and review the impact of the legislation in the future.
The bill targets only people who use drugs in public, Councilmember Tammy Morales noted, targeting users who are poor or homeless while ignoring all the drug use that takes place behind closed doors. “If we wanted to address drug addiction, we would not be focused only on those who use it in the streets where we can see their suffering.”
It also contains new provisions saying police will, in the future, adopt policies governing when and how to divert people instead of arresting them, along with a section saying police “may” consider whether a person using drugs is harming others or just themselves when deciding whether to make an arrest.
Finally, the bill contains some reporting requirements and sets up a new committee to evaluate how the law is going in the future.
Proponents of the bill, with the exception of its original sponsor Sara Nelson, made a lot of all these nonbinding suggestions and reporting requirements. (Nelson wanted to eliminate the evaluation committee as well as a nonbinding recommendation that the police use officers who have received crisis training, who make up more than half the department, to respond to public drug use, saying both proposals infringed on the authority of Police Chief Adrian Diaz and Mayor Bruce Harrell. After other council members noted that Harrell’s office approved both provisions, a majority of the council voted down both of Nelson’s amendments.)
“This does not create new [police] authority. It seeks to limit it in a way that does not exist under state law,” one of the bill’s two sponsors, Councilmember Lisa Herbold, said. “This is a commitment to not repeat the errors of the past.”
Lewis, who co-sponsored the legislation with Herbold, said the bill was not intended to be “the magic solution that fixes the situation that we are facing,” but added that it “gives additional guidance and [a] focus on public health best practices that are alternatives to incarceration and entering the criminal legal system.”
Opponents of the bill pointed out that not only is that “guidance” nonbinding, the legislation comes with no additional funding to implement diversion or treatment; instead, Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said, it offers a “hollow promise” of alternatives to arrest. Under the council’s regular process, the legislation would have been on the agenda for next week, coinciding with Harrell’s 2024 budget proposal, which will reveal how much, if any, funding Harrell will propose for expanding diversion programs such as LEAD, which is already oversubscribed for this year.
“So while the emphasis is on pre-arrest diversion and not arrest, we are not actually able to follow through with that without assurances that [these strategies] will be in the budget,” Mosqueda said.
Mosqueda, who chairs the council’s budget committee, also noted that Harrell’s “plan to invest $27 million toward facilities, treatments, and services to address the opioid crisis” is not actually a new $27 million investment. Instead, that number includes $7 million in unspent capital grants that will fund a new DESC overdose recovery site on Third Ave., as PubliCola exclusively reported last month, among other investments, plus an average of about $1 million a year from statewide settlements with opioid manufacturers and distributors, spread over the next 18 years.
Additionally, Harrell can’t actually commit that future money (whose value will depreciate with inflation over time), because the city allocates funding annually through the budget, so the money—which does have to be spent on purposes related to drug addiction—could pay for other things in the future.
Tammy Morales’ challenger Tanya Woo held a rally outside City Hall before the vote. The legislation, she acknowledged, isn’t perfect, but at least it “does something” to address public drug use in places like 12th and Jackson, in the Chinatown/International District.Councilmember Tammy Morales—whose challenger in this year’s election, Tanya Woo, held a rally with Chinatown/International District residents outside City Hall to highlight Morales’ opposition to the bill—said the legislation was “ineffective… unnecessary, and dare I say, performative.” The bill targets only people who use drugs in public, Morales noted, targeting users who are poor or homeless while ignoring all the drug use that takes place behind closed doors.
“If we wanted to address drug addiction, we would not be focused only on those who use it in the streets where we can see their suffering. We would be standing up real alternative for everyone,” like medication-assisted treatment, counseling, social supports, residential treatment, and walk-in clinics, Morales said.
The bill mentions many of these things—identifying “treatment” as a preferred approach, for example, in ten different places—but does nothing to make it happen. Instead, it doubles down on a law enforcement-based approach to a public health crisis.
In 2022, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority did away with the longstanding, but flawed, practice of physically counting people experiencing homelessness on a single night. By replacing the physical “point in time” count with a statistical model based on Department of Commerce Data, combined with interviews with people recruited through the broad-ranging social networks that exist among unsheltered people, the KCRHA hoped to produce a more accurate picture of homelessness in King County.
The interviews, which contributed to the KCRHA’s estimate of more than 53,000 people experiencing homelessness in King County, also served a second, arguably more impactful, purpose: They formed the basis for an overarching plan that will guide the authority’s use of public dollars for the next five years. The Five-Year Plan, which includes recommendations for specific temporary housing types (and initially came with a $12 billion price tag), was based largely on 180 of these interviews, which researchers used to “identify specific temporary and permanent housing models directly from the voices of people living unsheltered, interpreted in partnership with people with lived experience,” according to the final five-year plan.
PubliCola has obtained the transcripts of more than 80 of these interviews, which took place in the early spring of 2022, through a records request. The interviews range from terse questions and answer sessions to lengthy, discursive conversations in which interviewers abandon the Q&A format to offer opinions, give advice, and tell people they can help them access services—something qualitative researchers are generally cautioned not to do. We also consulted two experts on qualitative research to learn more about how interviews like the ones KCRHA oversaw can best be used, and to learn some best practices for the kind of evaluation the KCRHA was attempting to do.
Additionally, PubliCola talked to an experienced data analyst at the KCRHA, who explained how the project worked. Initially, the interviews (which former KCRHA CEO Marc Dones called “oral histories”) were the sole focus of the research project, which the KCRHA titled “Understanding Unsheltered Homelessness.” Later on, after the Department of Housing and Urban Development rejected the KCRHA’s request to skip the point-in-time count altogether, Dones decided to “combine efforts between doing the Point in Time Count and this qualitative data collection,” Owen Kajfasz, the KCRHA’s acting chief community officer, said. “So we really merged two projects into one data collection.”
Some of the earliest interviews, which took place in South King County, didn’t include the proper consent forms or had transcripts that couldn’t be traced back to interview subjects. And overall, the interviews ended up oversampling straight white men, and undersampling women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people, forcing researchers to go back and add some incomplete interviews to the pool to correct the imbalance.
To conduct the interviews, KCRHA recruited members of the Lived Experience Coalition, a group that advocates for the inclusion of people with personal experience being homeless in policy and decision-making processes. (KCRHA staff also conducted some of the interviews.) Most interviewers received a two-part training led by Dones, who served as the “primary investigator,” or lead researcher, on the project. Those who couldn’t make the training or came on board later were instructed to read the training documents, which included a list of 31 questions, before starting work.
LEC members also held all three seats on the advisory board that oversaw the project, and later made up a majority of the team that “coded” the interviews in order to translate them into a set of recommendations for the five-year plan. As we’ve reported, the KCRHA has recently tried to distance itself from the LEC, but at the time—early 2022—the group was deeply integrated into the agency’s operations.
Although the researchers conducted more than 500 interviews, they ended up using just 180 transcripts. Some of the earliest interviews, which took place in South King County, didn’t include the proper consent forms or had transcripts that couldn’t be traced back to interview subjects. Overall, the interviews ended up oversampling straight white men, and undersampling women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people, forcing researchers to go back and add some incomplete interviews to the pool to correct the imbalance—overrepresenting marginalized groups because they are the least served by the current shelter and service system..
“This wasn’t a perfect process,” Kajfasz acknowledged. “We did have more of those [interviews] that we couldn’t use than I was anticipating.”
Once the interviews were complete, a group of LEC members and KCRHA staff, aided by technical assistance from a Washington, D.C.-based firm called the Cloudburst Group, read transcripts of the interviews and “coded” them to correspond with different shelter and housing types, using the codes “to identify specific temporary and permanent housing models directly from the voices of people living unsheltered, interpreted in partnership with people with lived experience,” according to the Five-Year Plan. Although the final plan no longer includes specific dollar figure or specific numeric recommendations (eliminating, for example, a chart that suggested building no new tiny house villages ), it still represents a proposal that would, if implemented, reverse many longstanding policies and invest heavily in new approaches, like many more permanent parking spaces for people living in RVs and cars across the city.
The interview transcripts show many interviewers engaged in patient, compassionate attempts to elicit clear responses from people who were often discursive, rambling, and hard to follow. Interviewers from the Lived Experience Coalition used their own experiences to guide conversations and make their interview subjects comfortable—a key reason for including people with lived experience in data collection.
In one such conversation, the interviewer expresses concern and empathy when the person they’re talking to describes a series of traumatic situations, while still keeping the overall conversation on track. “I’m sorry you experienced that in such a tragic way. Thank you for just being vulnerable and open and sharing that because it’ll give me a glimpse of who you are and what you’ve been through,” the interviewer says, then moves on to the next question.
Researchers who use qualitative methods say it’s important to allow the conversation to flow and to use the questions as a guide rather than reading them word by word.
“In a qualitative interview, so much depends on the amount of trust and empathy that the interviewer can show,” said New York University School of Social Work professor Dr. Deborah Padgett, an expert on qualitative research who has written several books on the subject. “If you’re there in a trusting way, and you’re there as a researcher as opposed to a case worker or outreach worker or more official person, it gives you some legitimacy.”
Dr. Tyler Kincaid, a research assistant professor at Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of New Mexico who has led qualitative research about people experiencing homelessness, said qualitative interviews can’t be scripted to the extent that an ordinary survey can. “There’s an art to making the participant comfortable enough to respond, to keep the conversation going,” Kincaid said, and going “off script” is just part of the process. “If you have, say, 10 semi-structured questions, hopefully there’s followup questions and side questions and things within those ten standard questions on a piece of paper to help to bring out more information,” Kincaid said.
But the transcripts also revealed troubling practices. In the transcripts, interviewers often cut people off, talk at length about themselves, or offer unsolicited advice. Several times, interviewers suggest they or someone else at the interview site can directly connect people with services, such as housing vouchers or a workaround for King County’s hated 211 system, or jump in with answers before the person has had time to respond.
The experts we spoke to said it’s important for researchers not to involve themselves in people’s lives or promise things they can’t deliver. Kajfasz said researchers were told that the point of the research was data collection, not problem-solving, but “folks with lived experience, when they know they have a solution for somebody, they offer it.” Some interview locations had housing navigators or other services on site, Kajfasz added.
In one transcript, an interviewer offers their opinion about the man’s substance use, saying that with drugs, “when you wake up in the morning, you hate yourself.” “I don’t ever hate myself,” the man retorts. After a tangent about the concerns police have raised about encampment fires, the second interviewer tells the man he should join the military. “You can still do it. You’re young enough. You understand?”
In many cases, interviewers suggested answers to their own questions before people had a chance to speak. In one representative transcript, an interviewer repeatedly appears to cut their subject, a Native American man, off—suggesting, for example, that the reason the man is homeless is because he “prefer[s] to be in the woods” and doesn’t “want to be acclimated in society.” Although the man says “yeah” in response to both those statements, he objects when the interviewer continues, “You don’t want an apartment.” “Well, I do eventually,” he says.
Later in the transcript, a second interviewer offers their opinion about the man’s substance use, calling it “impressive” that “it’s just Everclear now” and adding, “you’ll wean yourself off that soon enough,” prompting the man to say he isn’t so sure. With drugs, the second interviewer continues, “when you wake up in the morning, you hate yourself.” “I don’t ever hate myself,” the man retorts. After a tangent about the concerns police have raised about encampment fires, the second interviewer tells the man he should join the military. “You can still do it. You’re young enough. You understand?”
In another transcript, the interviewer suggests that their subject, a Latino man who appears to struggle with English, find work as a day laborer—a stereotypical job for Spanish-speaking immigrants. None of the interviews PubliCola reviewed were conducted in a language other than English; Kajfasz said the KCRHA offered “language services,” but that “the majority of folks, even if English was not their first language, were choosing English.”
Padgett says that while good qualitative research requires an interviewer to be patient, “take a lot of time,” and build trust and empathy, interviewers should never weigh in with their own opinions or advice. “If you’re giving opinions about what they’re saying, you’re taking up valuable space in the conversation—and they may not want that level of pity,” Padgett said. “When I’m training people, the idea is to be empathic. In the moment, you might say, ‘I’m really sorry that happened to you,’ but [you shouldn’t] go down the rabbit hole of ‘tell me more about your trauma.'”
In an interview that appeared to cross this line, an interviewer jumped in when the man he was interviewing, whose race is not identified in the transcript, said he was probably homeless because he’d been in the foster care and prison systems. “Now you know that’s not true,” the interviewer said. The conversation continued:
Interviewer: You can’t tell me that, because you’re here for a reason. You got kids. We went through the pandemic. You got sick two times, you just said. Hell to the no, ain’t nobody in their life ever in my face will ever say that. Not while I’m standing there. I’m sorry. That just hurt. That just touched me.
Subject: No, I, I—
Interviewer: Don’t ever say that shit again to me.
Subject: My apologies. I will not say that again.
Speaker 2: To anybody, because I want you to know, that’s something that’s instilled in you and that you’re going to instill every person that come through your life, especially your children. Because my kids, they already know like I’m their ride or die. They tell people, you don’t know my mama when they tell them, oh you know how your mom- No. You don’t know my mom. So, it’s a different generation. When we got to teach that generation, there is something to live for. You’re not here for nothing. You what I’m saying? I don’t know where we went off of. Let’s see. Where did you go to school?
Padgett, who looked over the interview questions before we spoke, said the questions themselves were “pretty good, but it’s qualitative, so what’s good on paper only comes out as good if the interviewer does it well so there’s a lot more onus put on the interviewer” to keep things on track. The KCRHA did not provide its training materials, but Padgett said she usually has trainees do mock interviews, then supervises them and provides feedback on their methods throughout a project so they can adjust and improve.
In addition to asking leading questions and interrupting, a number of transcripts include interviewers skipping past questions, making assumptions about people’s gender identity or sexual orientation, and speaking excessively about themselves. In one transcript, an interviewer provides a detailed roster of their own family members’ birthdays; in another, the interviewer tries to recruit the person they’re interviewing to join the Lived Experience Coalition and the KCRHA’s Vehicle Residency Policy Group.
“It’s not about the interviewer,” Padgett said. “You should think of yourself as wearing a hat that says ‘researcher’ on it, and if you take that hat off and become a comrade of lived experience, then you’re losing what qualitative [research] does best, which is having some distance but also empathy. It’s a juggling act.”
“You really don’t want to make some sort of big, generalized governmental or programmatic decisions just based off qualitative research.” —Dr. Tyler Kincaid, University of New Mexico
Once the interviews were complete, another team of researchers, which included several members of the LEC, translated them into housing types, using specific keywords and concepts that people brought up during their conversations to create a roster of shelter types that might be appropriate. People who are using drugs but want to get sober might end up in a box titled “recovery housing,” while those with medical problems might end up in another box labeled “medical respite.” Many of the 180 interviews were with people living in their vehicles or RVs, who often ended up in separate boxes for safe parking and RV safe lots.
“It wasn’t directly, ‘hey, I need medical respite,’ so these people get medical respite, or ‘hey, I need RV parking,’ so this person gets RV parking. It was looking at all of these types of challenges folks are facing,” Kajfasz said. “And for some of those, we’re having to take pieces of information across the interview.” People who were employed but couldn’t afford rent, for example, suggested a need for more housing with supported employment services, while people struggling to stay sober suggested a need for sober housing.
At a glance, some of these solutions can seem overly determinative—some people who want to quit drinking or using other drugs might do better living independently than moving into group recovery housing, for example. Others, like RV parking lots, are widely viewed as short-term solutions, not permanent homes. Although these may seem like minor issues—shouldn’t people trying to avoid drugs and alcohol jump at an opportunity for a room in sober living, even if they would prefer a private apartment?—they translate into real policy choices, and ultimately into real money.
The initial version of the Five-Year Plan called for nearly 4,000 medical respite beds ($2.7 billion over five years); 2,570 units of recovery housing ($1.8 billion); and nearly 5,000 permanent parking spots for passenger vehicles and RVs ($192 million). The specific numbers and dollar figures may have been excised from the final plan, but the mix of shelter, or “temporary housing,” types—based on an “analysis of PIT interviews and input of the Lived Experience Commission advisory group,” according to an internal memo—remains the same, so it seems important to get it right.
“You really don’t want to make some sort of big, generalized governmental or programmatic decisions just based off qualitative research,” Kincaid, from the University of New Mexico, said. For example, he said, it would “so difficult to [use] any sort of qualitative research” as the basis for investing in one type of shelter over another, unless people consistently identified a specific type of shelter they wanted.
Padgett, from NYU, said she believes strongly that “well-done, rigorous qualitative research can play a strong and scientifically valid role, but it’s all in how you handle the information so that you’re not coming to conclusions with no basis in the data.”
In a memo from September 2022, consultants from the Cloudburst Group summarized some of the lessons the LEC and KCRHA learned from the Understanding Unsheltered Homelessness project. Among their conclusions: If the KCRHA does another series of interviews in the future, researchers need to identify the intent of the project before starting interviews, and trainers should emphasize the need to ask questions consistently, “as well as allowing participants to speak and not be interrupted.”
The way the researchers recruited participants—by identifying an initial “wave” of subjects who recruited new people through their social networks—was flawed and contributed to an interview pool that was disproportionately made up of straight, white men.
Finally, the memo noted, it was hard to interpret some interviews because they included multiple people (interviewers as well as people who approached and started talking during interviews; in the future, the memo says, the protocol for interviews “should establish that these are individual interviews.”
Kajfasz said that without Dones’ “significant expertise” in the area of qualitative research, the KCRHA isn’t planning to do an interview project of similar size and scope any time in the near future. Nor will in-person interviews form the basis for the next point-in-time count, which the KCRHA must conduct next year. The KCRHA is “currently conferring with HUD about what the next PIT count” will involve, Kajfasz said, but it probably will never look like last year’s count again. “Never do I ever want to do the point-in-time count and large-scale qualitative interviewing together,” Kajfasz said.
The Downtown Emergency Service Center, which operates shelters, housing, and mobile crisis response teams, will operate a new opiate overdose response center, serving up to 20 people a day, inside its Morrison Hotel building on Third Avenue in downtown Seattle. DESC director Daniel Malone says the new facility will share the second floor of the Morrison, which housed the agency’s congregate shelter prior to COVID, with an expansion of DESC’s existing outpatient behavioral health clinic and serve people looking for services and a place to physically recover immediately after an overdose.
Currently, if someone overdoses in Seattle and emergency medical services (EMS) responds, they generally face two options: Go to the hospital in an ambulance, or walk away. A post-overdose stabilization site would create a third option where people could rest, receive IV fluids or medication to get them through the early stages of withdrawal, and initiate treatment for opioid use disorder. Patients could also access DESC’s outpatient behavioral health clinic, which connects patients with psychiatric care, counseling, and case management.
Methadone—an opiate that effectively replaces more harmful drugs like heroin and fentanyl, allowing people to resume normal lives—remains one of the most highly regulated drugs in the nation; patients typically have to show up in a physical location to take a single dose at a specific time every day, although lawmakers temporarily loosened those restrictions during COVID. Buprenorphine, which works by partially occupying the brain’s opiate receptors, is more widely accessible, and a new injectable form of the drug, trademarked Sublocade, lasts a month.
“It’s extremely important to us to make sure that we won’t have that kind of chaotic and disruptive activity happening on the sidewalk in front of the building, and part of our plan is to really enhance our capacity to have a much stronger presence to help ensure that the environment is calm and conducive to people coming and going safely.”—DESC Director Daniel Malone
“Methadone introduces a set of additional regulatory complications that the other medicines don’t have, but methadone would be an important tool in the toolbox,” Malone said.
Between January and July of this year, according to data from the King County Department of Public Health, emergency medical services responded to 2,546 nonfatal overdoses in Seattle, out of 4,918 countywide. Both fatal and nonfatal overdoses have increased steadily over the past five years, as fentanyl—a powerful opioid first developed as a pain medication in the 1960s—has worked its way into the street drug supply.
Funding for the new facility would come from the city of Seattle, King County, private grants, and the University of Washington’s Addictions, Drug & Alcohol Institute (ADAI). In July, the King County Council approved spending $2 million in unspent CLFR (federal COVID) funds to help renovate the second floor of the Morrison to accommodate the expanded outpatient center and the opiate recovery site.
The city of Seattle is expected to provide another $2 million for construction, out of $7 million in unspent federal funding that Mayor Bruce Harrell announced as part of his plan to “invest $27 million toward facilities, treatments, and services to address the opioid crisis.” As we’ve reported, the $27 million is actually $7 million in unspent federal grants for capital projects, plus a little over $1 million a year from state settlements with opiate manufacturers and distributors. That million dollars could could help fund the day-to-day operations of the new overdose recovery site over the next two decades, but it won’t be enough to keep the new site open full-time, Malone said.
“If there’s not enough money to [operate] 24/7, then some version where it’s only open certain hours may have to be implemented,” Malone said. Overdoses happen at all hours, so having only a part-time facility “would seriously limit the ability of this facility to meet all the community’s needs over the course of the day.”
Harrell expressed support for a post-overdose recovery center back in April, when he signed an executive order expressing the city’s commitment to site and “explore funding for” a new facility “where EMS can bring people after non-fatal overdoses to recover, get stabilized on medications, and access resources.” However, his office would not comment on the plan to open the site on Third Avenue, and would not confirm that DESC was the intended recipient of the funds Harrell announced last month. “There is [a request for proposals], and no decisions have been made,” Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen said. “It is a competitive process, and we expect DESC will apply.”
King County just approved spending $2.2 million in unspent federal COVID relief dollars to help renovate the site, which used to house DESC’s congregate shelter, last month.
The Morrison Hotel, which also includes 190 permanent supportive housing units, is located directly across from the King County Courthouse. The sidewalk around the building’s Third Avenue entrance is often occupied by people who are unhoused, have untreated behavioral health conditions, or are actively using and selling drugs, making the building a target of frequent complaints and a perennial subject for conservative local media such as KOMO News, which infamously blamed DESC for crime on Third Ave. in its followup to the agitprop film “Seattle Is Dying.”
In addition to funds for the overdose site itself, King County approved $200,000 for a “client engagement team” that will “manage client presence and prevent conflicts on Third Avenue in front of DESC’s renovated facility,” according to a King County Council memo.
“It’s extremely important to us to make sure that we won’t have that kind of chaotic and disruptive activity happening on the sidewalk in front of the building, and part of our plan is to really enhance our capacity to have a much stronger presence to help ensure that the environment is calm and conducive to people coming and going safely,” Malone said. The new staff will “be present not just inside, but in the immediate external sidewalk area… to connect with people who are out there and deal with anything that may be happening that is contributing to an undesirable environment.”
Judges and other courthouse officials have complained for years about safety issues around the courthouse, which also borders City Hall Park—a compact greenspace that recently reopened after a lengthy closure. King County Superior Court Judge Patrick Oishi, who has repeatedly raised alarms about the safety of jurors and courthouse staff, told PubliCola he hopes the opioid recovery center will have a positive impact on the street scene around the courthouse.
“Although it is difficult to predict what impact an opioid recovery center will have on the courthouse area, the Court commends Mayor Harrell, the City of Seattle, and King County for taking critical steps to address this significant public health crisis,” Oishi said. “It is our hope that responding to the opioid crisis will enhance public safety in the courthouse area.”
The Seattle City Council narrowly rejected Councilmember Andrew Lewis’ proposal to fast-track a bill empowering City Attorney Ann Davison to prosecute people for drug possession and public use, voting to allow the bill to go through the regular committee process. The impact of the vote is that the council will take up the bill after they return from the regular August recess, allowing council staff the time to draft amendments and analyze the latest version of the legislation.
Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen introduced the first version of the drug criminalization bill last April, after the state adopted legislation making drug possession and public drug use a gross misdemeanor. Initially, Lewis voted against the legislation, citing Davison’s unilateral decision to abandon Seattle Community Court, but he has since become one of the bill’s most vocal advocates, arguing that the work of Mayor Bruce Harrell’s fentanyl task force will produce policy and legal alternatives to the traditional arrest-and-prosecution system.
While the bill says diversion and other options are the “preferred” alternatives to arrest, it does not require diversion or lay out the kind of circumstances in which diversion would be appropriate. Instead, it directs SPD to develop “guidance on diversion” as part of policies that will “state that diversion and referral to services is the preferred response to possession and public use while acknowledging that arrests are warranted in some situations.”
The latest version of the bill includes 13 additional “whereas” clauses, along with eight new findings about the state of the drug crisis in Seattle. It also adds a new section to the Seattle Municipal Code stating that, in the future, police will adopt policies governing arrests for drug possession and public drug use, and that those policies will state that alternatives like diversion and treatment “are the preferred approach” when police make arrests under the new law.
At a committee meeting to discuss the drug criminalization bill Monday afternoon, council members discussed several issues with the legislation that PubliCola pointed out two weeks ago.
First, while the bill says diversion and other options are the “preferred” alternatives to arrest, it does not require diversion, provide funding for alternatives to arrest, or provide examples of circumstances in which diversion would be appropriate. Instead, it directs SPD to develop “guidance on diversion” as part of policies that will “state that diversion and referral to services is the preferred response to possession and public use while acknowledging that arrests are warranted in some situations.”
Beyond this, the ordinance delegates to individual officers the authority to decide whether a person poses a threat, based on “the totality of the circumstances and the officer’s training and experience,” which is essentially the current system, augmented by some new training on what constitutes a drug-specific threat.
“The standard mirrors the practical thought process that officers ordinarily apply in the field when deciding whether to make an arrest, and it allows for it encourages officers to exercise discretion,” mayoral advisor Andrew Myerberg told the council. If a person is only a “threat to self,” the bill says officers should “make a reasonable attempt to contact and coordinate efforts for diversion, outreach, and other alternatives,” but leaves that decision, too, up to individual officers.
“The fundamental goal of this ordinance and executives overall approach to the synthetic opioid crisis is to increase the proportion of individuals suffering from addiction who seek and accept treatment services,” Myerberg said.
Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda pointed out the obvious: The mayor’s office has not proposed funding for addiction, treatment, or diversion programs. “It seems important that the resources be sufficiently invested into the alternative strategies so that people are not being given a false promise that there will be a diversion strategy [but] we don’t have those resources,” Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said. “And where will that funding come from?”
The law does not address private use of illegal drugs inside people’s homes.
Second, while Harrell has stated (and mainstream media outlets have inaccurately reported) that the bill includes $27 million for treatment and other alternatives to arrest, the bill never mentions money or spending priorities. In fact, as council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda noted repeatedly on Monday, the “new” $27 million is a combination of $7 million in grant funding the city didn’t spend in previous years, plus $1 million a year from two state settlements with opioid manufacturers and distributors. Harrell has indicated he wants to use the money to stand up and staff the proposed opioid response center he announced in April. That would leave no additional funding for programs like LEAD, REACH, and We Deliver Care, to which Myerberg said police could direct people who break the new law.
“When I’m talking to officers in the field about this [harm to others] concept, I guess there is a concern that it is an additional layer of complexity and standard that would be put on [officers. Personally I believe that the council should have incorporated state law, and then if some council members and others wanted to add policy or funding, they could have done that shortly after adopting the ordinance.”—Councilmember Alex Pedersen
At Monday’s meeting, Pedersen and Nelson raised concerns that the bill would create ambiguity and introduce new challenges for police officers that would make it harder for them to do their jobs.
“When I’m talking to officers in the field about this [harm to others] concept, I guess there is a concern that it is an additional layer of complexity and standard that would be put on” officers, Pedersen said. “Personally, I believe that the council should have incorporated state law into our Seattle Municipal Code and then if some council members and others wanted to add policy or funding, they could have done that shortly after adopting the ordinance.”
Myerberg said the legislation isn’t “asking [officers] to reinvent the wheel.” While it is Harrell’s “intent” to steer people toward diversion and treatment, officers will still get to make the calls they consider appropriate in all cases, including arrest if they believe it’s necessary to prevent harm or get someone to go into treatment or crisis care. “[Harrell is] asking them to do what they already do,” Myerberg said. “The executive remains clear that such a decision will be within the discretion of the officer. It will be fact-specific and individual-dependent.”
In late July, the Seattle Police Officers Guild “applauded” the new legislation, saying it would help “restor[e] public safety to the city.” This suggests that, at the very least, SPOG —which has a history of opposing substantive police reforms—does not expect the bill to cause major disruptions to officers’ usual way of doing business.
Including a preference for diversion in the police manual could lead to incremental change. But without significantly more funding, it’s unlikely to result in different outcomes, either for people using drugs in public or the general public witnessing public drug use.
Myerberg noted Harrell’s personal commitment to encouraging alternatives to arrest and prosecution, which stem partly from his direct experience as a Black man growing up in Seattle during the drug war. But intent is not the same thing as law; mayors come and go, and their lasting impact isn’t meaning well, but pushing through tangible, legally binding changes that last longer than a single administration.
Mayor Bruce Harrell’s proposal to reintroduce a local drug criminalization ordinance has been widely described as a “plan to combat opioid addiction” that would—as the Seattle Times put it—”[c]ommit $27 million toward enhanced treatment facilities, new addiction services and improved overdose response.”
But this characterization is misleading. For one thing, the $27 million includes no new funding. For another, that total includes both one-time spending and a small annual allocation from last year’s state opioid settlement that will trickle in over the next 18 years.
Of the $27 million, $7 million consists of leftover federal Community Development Block Grant funding that the city did not spend in previous years—a one-time allocation that Harrell’s spokesman, Jamie Housen said will provide “capital funding to prepare existing facilities to provide care and treatment services for substance use disorders.”
Of the $27 million, $7 million consists of leftover federal funding that the city did not spend in previous years. The rest is the total amount the city estimates it will receive from the statewide opioid settlement over the next 18 years—a little over $1 million a year each year, on average, through 2032.
The rest, $20 million, is the total amount the city estimates it will receive from the statewide opioid lawsuit settlement over the next 18 years—a little over $1 million a year each year, on average, through 2032. That’s less than seven-hundredths of one percent of the city’s general-fund budget, and about three-tenths of one percent of the Seattle Police Department’s budget.
Housen said the $1.1 million a year will go toward “programs addressing addiction and improving our treatment and service provision systems.”
Those are surely worthy goals (spending on any kind of treatment or social service is almost certainly better than further criminalizing addiction), but they do not amount to the “enhanced treatment facilities, new addiction services and improved overdose response” Harrell announced his plan would pay for. Nor is the opioid settlement funding new; we’ve been reporting on what it will mean for Seattle, and how the state has directed cities to spend the money, since last year.
So what does the bill actually do? Exactly what an earlier version of the bill, which the council rejected 5-4, would have done: Empower City Attorney Ann Davison to prosecute people for simple drug possession or for using drugs, except alcohol and marijuana, in public. The substantive portion of the bill, which comes after nearly six pages of nonbinding whereas clauses and statements of fact, is identical to the previous proposal.
In addition, and less substantively, the bill directs the Seattle Police Department to adopt policies governing arrests under the new law, and says that these future policies must “state that diversion and referral to services is the preferred 2 response to possession and public use while acknowledging that arrests are warranted in some situations,” including situations that threaten any person’s safety.
Harrell’s task force on addiction, which includes subgroups that are discussion diversion, treatment, and the role of the municipal court, continues to meet. According to Housen, the groups are focusing on “court systems, arrest and pretrial diversion, and treatment programs” and “are tasked with advancing efforts to improve connections between systems, map and identify gaps in diversion programs, and strengthen partner coordination.”
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.
Yesterday, following last week’s city council vote rejecting a bill that would have given City Attorney Ann Davison the power to prosecute people for drug possession and public use, Mayor Bruce Harrell announced the creation of a 24-member “Fentanyl Systems Work Group” tasked with finding and implementing solutions to the opioid overdose crisis. In King County, 462 people have died of overdoses involving opioids this year alone.
In a press conference at city hall on Monday, Harrell said he was committed to passing a new drug possession and public drug use ordinance that would align the Seattle Municipal Code with a statewide “Blake fix” law passed by the legislature in May, which set drug possession and public use as gross misdemeanors.
“We will pass a law that allows our department to make arrests,” Harrell said. “But we will do that with compassion, to protect people when we have to.” Talking about how the war on drugs harmed his own community, Harrell wiped away tears and briefly stepped away from the podium.
“I believe in my heart, the people that are using drugs, many of them are sick,” Harrell said. “They’re not healthy. We’re not going to go out and fill our jails with sick people.”
The Seattle Police Department is already authorized to arrest people for drug use and possession under the statewide law, although King County Prosecutor Leesa Manion would have to agree to prosecute those cases, which she has said she will not do. Currently, few people are arrested or prosecuted under existing felony drug laws.
When pre-booking or pre-trial diversion don’t work or aren’t appropriate, Councilmember Andrew Lewis said he would support a new therapeutic court “where there would basically be a court-supervised check-in treatment regime—which is basically King County Drug Court.”
The work group will include municipal judges (including former community court judge Damon Shadid), several city council members, Davison, Police Chief Adrian Diaz, department directors, and representatives from service providers, diversion programs, community groups, and racial justice organizations.
Councilmember Sara Nelson, one of the sponsors of the drug possession bill, was adamant that the council pass a law soon. “I don’t want to see any infringement upon the city attorney’s prosecutorial discretion,” Nelson said after the press conference. “And I don’t want anybody telling the mayor what he’s going to do, what he’s going to direct his officers to do.”
Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who cast the deciding “no” vote last week, has said that in order to vote for a new bill granting the city attorney new authority to prosecute misdemeanor drug crimes, he wants to see a replacement for community court, more funding for prefiling and pre-arrest diversion programs like LEAD, and other “necessary treatment and diversion programs.”
“I’m looking forward to hearing from everybody,” Lewis told PubliCola. “We’ve got two judges who are on this task force. We’ve got the city attorney’s office on this task force. I think that we can work through whatever differences we have to get a plan in place to have a successor therapeutic court.”
Community court has been the primary alternative to Seattle’s mainstream municipal court system since 2020. Though Lewis said he’s committed to finding a replacement for the court, he added that he’s actually more invested in diversion programs that target people before they get arrested in charged, such as LEAD for adults and Community Passageways for youth.
Lisa Daugaard, co-director of Purpose Dignity Action (formerly the Public Defender Association), which runs the pioneering pre-booking diversion program LEAD, said the debate over adding drug possession and public use to Seattle’s municipal code is something of a distraction, since diversion programs have existed as an option for more than a decade and will continue to.
“Since 2012,” Daugaard said, “we’ve had a framework in Seattle where even when there is legal authority to arrest, book someone into jail, refer them to prosecution, and prosecute them, our local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors have very often chosen not to do that, in preference for a pre-booking diversion framework where people get a warm handoff to harm reduction-based care.”
Daugaard says arrests for drug-related offenses in Seattle have plummeted in the past two decades and aren’t likely to increase. “The incidence of stops, searches, and arrests for drug crime fell over a decade from being at the very top of the reasons that people have course of contact with law enforcement to outside the top ten,” she said. “And that was not an accident.”
When pre-booking or pre-trial diversion don’t work or aren’t appropriate, Lewis said he would support a new therapeutic court “where there would basically be a court-supervised check-in treatment regime—which is basically King County Drug Court.” Participants in drug court, which lasts a minimum of 10 months, must check in frequently, stay sober, and meet other court-mandated requirements in order to have their charges dropped.
“We know that pre-file diversions are probably best for the overwhelming majority of people,” Lewis said. “But there is a small group of people where those interventions have not been successful, and they need a little bit more accountability and a little bit more structure. And that can definitely be provided by a therapeutic court.”
Daugaard says the more critical issue is finding sufficient funds for recovery services for people with substance use disorder, especially those without shelter. Though one selling point of the state’s drug possession bill was supposed to be an increase in funding for services and treatment, Daugaard says what the state actually provided is insufficient to deal with the scope of the problem statewide.
“The population in each region that it can serve is a small fraction of the total number of people who are using drugs in a way that could either be life threatening or problematic for their stability.” Addressing drug use in Seattle will require an injection of local resources beyond what the city has provided so far—something the council will have to grapple with during its annual budget deliberations this coming fall.
After a tense, emotional meeting Tuesday, the Seattle City Council voted 5-4 to reject legislation proposed by City Attorney Ann Davison that would have empowered Davison to prosecute Seattle residents for simple drug use and possession.
The bill, co-sponsored by Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen, would have incorporated most of a new state law making drug use and possession a gross misdemeanor into the city’s municipal code. The state legislature changed the law this year after the state supreme court overturned the state’s felony drug possession law in a decision called Washington v. Blake.
The swing vote was Andrew Lewis, a former assistant city attorney who represents downtown Seattle and is up for reelection this year. On Tuesday, Lewis said he had planned on voting for the bill, but changed his mind after Davison abruptly and unilaterally announced the city would no longer participate in community court, a therapeutic court that did not require people to plead guilty of a crime to participate.
Lewis’ vote, he said, came down to the fact that he didn’t believe Davison would use the law judiciously after she effectively eliminated the city’s only therapeutic court.
“What it really came down to was that I don’t have any guarantee right now, with these misdemeanors, that jail isn’t going to be the primary remedy that’s sought to enforce them” in the absence of community court, Councilmember Andrew Lewis said. “”This infrastructure has to be in place, or at least there has to be a commitment or an outline for what we are going to do, and I ultimately didn’t feel comfortable giving that authority without that.”
“I came out here on the dais today fully prepared to vote for this measure,” Lewis said. “I am not necessarily opposed to incorporating the statute into our [city code], and I was prepared to do this. I think it is generally proper for us to do it. But with the ending of community court, without any additional process, I just can’t do it today.”
On Wednesday, Lewis told PubliCola that what his vote “really came down to was that I don’t have any guarantee right now, with these misdemeanors, that jail isn’t going to be the primary remedy that’s sought to enforce them” in the absence of community court. “It doesn’t exist now, but maybe we could make a successor court” to community court, he said. “This infrastructure has to be in place, or at least there has to be a commitment or an outline for what we are going to do, and I ultimately didn’t feel comfortable giving that authority without that.”
This afternoon, Lewis announced he would propose a path toward passing a version of Davison’s law, after working to develop a “successor court” to community court, develop and fund treatment-based pre-filing diversion, working “to scale and deploy” an evidence-based response to fentanyl use in Seattle, and “finally, after creating those necessary pathways for treatment and diversion, propose legislation making the Seattle Municipal Code consistent with State Law on possession and public use.”
Tensions were high in council chambers on Tuesday, as dozens of public commenters opposed to the law expressed their grievances with the council in general, and Nelson—who owns Fremont Brewing, a brewery and bar, with her husband—in particular.
“We all know that the Seattle Police Department will not be investigating, arresting, and charging anyone who is doing lines of coke in the bathroom of the Fremont Brewery,” Molly Gilbert, head of the union representing King County Department of Public Defense employees, said. “You are literally a drug dealer!” another commenter quipped.
Others responded to claims that the proposal was not tantamount to a “drug war,” because it would only make drug use and possession a misdemeanor, by telling the council how their own lives were derailed by misdemeanor drug convictions. Liletha Williams, one of the last people to speak, testified that her misdemeanor convictions in the 1990s “destroyed my life.”
“I’m 62 and I don’t have any retirement,” Williams said. “I have to work. I’m sick. I can’t have surgery because I can’t miss work. This is all because of my drug addiction in 1990.”
Moments after listening to this testimony, Nelson said her legislation had nothing in common with the drug war of the 1990s.
“I believe that equating this legislation to the war on drugs is frankly to diminish and minimize the damages and the heinousness of that stain on our history,” Nelson said. “Those were felonies. People were thrown into jail for years on felony charges having to do primarily with cannabis and coke and crack and heroin, etc. We are talking [about creating a] gross misdemeanor to address the most potent and dangerous drug to hit our streets, ever.”
Juarez—who briefly put the meeting into recess after people objected to her proposal to end public comment before everyone had spoken—also described fentanyl as a uniquely deadly and dangerous new drug.
“Let me be clear,” Juarez said, “fentanyl is poison. The effects are different and more deadly than than we have ever witnessed with other dangerous drugs like cocaine or heroin. There is no such thing as a functioning fentanyl user. You either have treatment or you die. And you die soon.”
In fact, fentanyl has been legally manufactured and prescribed in the US since the 1960s for long-term pain management and is on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines, along with many other potentially addictive drugs. (Nor—despite frequent claims to the contrary—can people get high or overdose from secondhand fentanyl vapor, according to the Seattle/King County Department of Public Health.)
“Let me be clear,” Council President Debora Juarez said, “fentanyl is poison. The effects are different and more deadly than than we have ever witnessed with other dangerous drugs like cocaine or heroin. There is no such thing as a functioning fentanyl user. You either have treatment or you die. And you die soon.”
So what happens now? As it has since May, the new state law applies in Seattle, meaning that drug use and possession are both illegal. (This is true despite a false claim from Davison that “Seattle will now be the only municipality in the State of Washington where it is legal to use hard drugs in public.”). Seattle Police Department officers retain their existing authority to arrest people under the state law, and King County Prosecutor Leesa Manion retains her existing authority to prosecute people for misdemeanor drug use and possession. And Davison can continue prosecuting misdemeanors related to drug use, such as shoplifting and trespassing—something that has already been keeping her busy in the absence of broad the broad new authority she sought.
In all likelihood, SPD won’t start rounding up fentanyl users on Third Avenue, and Manion won’t start prosecuting people for simple possession, but that would have been the case even if the legislation had passed. Manion, who supported the bill, rarely pursues even felony drug cases, and SPD has been focusing its resources on people higher up the illicit drug food chain—”the dealers and traffickers bringing this poison into our communities,” as Mayor Bruce Harrell put it in a statement after the vote. Harrell, no fan of drug-war policies, has stayed largely silent on the legislation; in his statement, he said it was “unacceptable for people to consume illegal drugs in public spaces,” but also emphasized “new and innovative approaches to ensure those in need receive the treatment they deserve,” such as contingency management.
Lewis’ potential legislation is the wild card. If he re-introduces some version of Davison’s bill—criminalizing drug use but securing promises from her office about diversion and treatment, for example—it could reignite a largely irrelevant debate about arresting and jailing drug users amid an overdose crisis that cries out for evidence-based approaches, not overheated drug-war rhetoric.
City Councilmember Sara Nelson, a vocal advocate for abstinence-based treatment for addiction, argued publicly yesterday with advocates for harm reduction over their approach, which emphasizes keeping people who use drugs alive and helping them address underlying conditions, such as homelessness and health care issues, without judgment or pressure to quit using drugs. Why, Nelson wanted to know, were these organizations focused on reducing harm from drug user rather than “encouraging” them to understand that total abstinence should be their goal?
“What [is] Public Health… doing to move beyond the harm reduction phase and how much money, if any, do you spend on agencies or for treatment that is geared toward abstinence?” Nelson asked. “And as a corollary of that, I guess the more basic question is, does Public Health agree that it has a responsibility to change behavior beyond meeting people where they’re at? Do you feel as thought’s important to help people change their use patterns in ways that they can go into abstinence-based recovery?”
Nelson’s (rhetorical?) questions came during a presentation by three longtime service providers—REACH, the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance, and the Hepatitis Education Project, along with King County Public Health—about how they have used funding from a small grant aimed specifically at reducing harm related to drug use. For years, the city council has also allocated funds for this purpose but the mayor’s office has refused to spend it.
“We’ve got ‘meeting people where they’re at’ covered, I think, when we’re looking at the treatment services that are provided right now,” Nelson said.
The county, strategic advisor and drug policy specialist Brad Finegood assured Nelson, spends “hundreds of millions of dollars” on abstinence-only services; the point of also funding harm reduction, he said, is to “keep people alive” and give them entry points for services amid an overdose epidemic that claimed more than 700 lives in King County last year. Those services, the direct service providers explained, include handing out the overdose prevention drug naloxone, connecting people to health care, offering medication-assisted treatment, and handing out supplies for safer use, including pipes for smoking drugs rather than injecting them.
Nelson (like many local right-wing commentators) zeroed in on safe smoking supplies, suggesting that providers should measure their success by tracking how many people who take pipes end up in treatment.
“I know it can be controversial,” Hepatitis Education Project program director Amber Tejada responded, but “one of the keys that I see is we want to facilitate the autonomy of people that use drugs. There are folks that don’t want to stop using drugs. There are folks for whom abstinence is not how they measure success in life. … Our mission, what we have been able to do really successfully with this program, is to show that people can use drugs safely, and we can help folks get access to resources if that is something they are interested in.”
Last week, Nelson joined her colleague Alex Pedersen and City Attorney Ann Davison to propose new legislation that would enable the city attorney, rather than the King County Prosecutor, to begin prosecuting people for simple drug possession and public drug use. In 2018, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterburg stopped pursuing charges against people for possession of small amounts of drugs while expanding programs like LEAD that work to provide case management and service connections to people who use drugs.
The legislation, if adopted, would represent a profound change to the city’s approach to drug use and a return to war-on-drugs policies that the region has largely abandoned in favor of more compassionate and evidence-based approaches.
Last year, Nelson inserted language into the 2023-2024 budget to fund “facilities” for abstinence-based residential or intensive outpatient treatment using the city’s portion of a state settlement with opioid manufacturers. However, the language of Nelson’s statement of legislative intent leaves wiggle room for other evidence-based types of treatment, such as medication-assisted treatment or contingency management, as a presentation from council central staff at yesterday’s meeting also made clear.
Yesterday, Nelson expressed her frustration that the “private provider community,” which has “more availability for people who have insurance or can pay out-of-pocket,” has not been directly involved in the group that will make recommendations on what kind of treatment to fund with the money she proposed setting aside.
The point of her budget amendment, Nelson said, was “to establish a pilot program that would allow the city to directly contract with treatment facilities, private or public, in order to [help] people who are at the phase of really wanting to go into rehab, get into rehab, especially if they don’t have medication” as an option, as opioid users do.
“We’ve got ‘meeting people where they’re at’ covered, I think, when we’re looking at the treatment services that are provided right now,” Nelson said.