By Erica C. Barnett
Next Tuesday, the Seattle City Council could adopt legislation to incorporate parts of a new state law criminalizing public drug use and simple possession, adopted during a short special session earlier this year, into the city’s municipal code. The proposal, sponsored by City Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen and backed by City Attorney Ann Davison, would empower the city attorney’s office to prosecute people for possessing or using illegal drugs for the first time in the city’s history.
The legislature adopted the new law, which makes public drug use and simple possession a gross misdemeanor, during a special session earlier this year. The law is a response to a state supreme court decision known as State v. Blake, which overturned a state law making simple drug possession a felony. The legislature passed a temporary law making possession a felony while it hashed out a more comprehensive proposal, which passed during a special session this year. The new law makes drug possession and public use a misdemeanor, effectively bumping drug cases down from King County Prosecutor Leesa Manion’s office to Davison.
If the council doesn’t pass the new law, Manion would still have the authority to charge drug misdemeanors in addition to felonies, but is unlikely to do so; in a letter to council members, Manion said that even if her office “magically had the staff and resources necessary to take on a new body of work, we would focus those resources on felony prosecutions because the PAO has misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor jurisdiction in only unincorporated areas of King County. … The City Attorney’s Office is better equipped to handle these cases immediately[.]”
During the year-long period when drug possession was a felony, Manion’s office only prosecuted two possession cases, according to an analysis by city council central staff. That same analysis says that although Davison’s office “has not explicitly stated how they would act upon the authority to charge knowing possession or use of illegal or controlled substances,” a Seattle Municipal Court analysis estimates an additional 700 to 870 cases a year, “based on historical filings before the COVID-19 pandemic” and the state’s own estimate of 12,000 new drug cases annually across the state.
In a letter to the council, the union representing King County Department of Public Defense employees, SEIU 925, called the legislation “an unconscionable abuse by the City Prosecutor, which dismisses solid empirical evidence that the War on Drugs and increased incarceration cause widespread harm throughout our community.
How the new proposals will play out in practice, if they pass, is a matter of significant debate. Opponents say they will empower police to do “stop and frisk” searches and arrest drug users with impunity, clogging up courtrooms and crowding the understaffed county jail. Proponents say the changes will create consequences for people committing crimes and—as Nelson put it in a press statement—”remove any further cause for inaction on the most critical public health and public safety issue of our time.” A third group—let’s call them reluctant proponents—argue that the new laws won’t have much impact, because the city hasn’t prioritized drug cases in the past and shows no sign of changing course now.
In a letter to the council, the union representing King County Department of Public Defense employees, SEIU 925, called the legislation “an unconscionable abuse by the City Prosecutor, which dismisses solid empirical evidence that the War on Drugs and increased incarceration cause widespread harm throughout our community.” Criminalizing drug use at the local level, the letter continued, “would create the same dynamic within SPD which led to the New York Police Department’s ‘stop and frisk’ programs,” which “ultimately led to a class-action lawsuit from public defenders in New York on behalf of their clients.” The letter was signed by all four SEIU chapters in Seattle.
During an online “emergency teach-in” to discuss the proposal on Tuesday, Drug Policy Alliance director Kassandra Frederique said the pressure to re-criminalize drugs in Seattle was part of a nationwide trend toward more punitive approaches to drug use and addiction. “Not only are we criminalizing, or re-litigating, issues that we have decided were inappropriate [for criminalization], we are now creating new crimes in order as a way to deal with the issues at hand,” Frederique said.
A majority of the City Council would probably agree that criminalizing drugs is not the best approach to the rising number of people using and selling drugs in public. However, the legislation may pass with a slim majority, if Councilmembers Andrew Lewis and Dan Strauss—both up for reelection this year—join Nelson, Pedersen, and Council President Debora Juarez in voting for the law. Both were reportedly still considering their votes this weekend.
Why would council members vote for a law criminalizing drug use in Seattle? Politics. Three council incumbents are up for reelection this year, and two—Andrew Lewis and Dan Strauss—are facing challenges from the right that could push them into voting for the law to avoid handing political fodder to their opponents. (Tammy Morales, in District 2, is also up for reelection but has already said she will vote against the bill). Although neither Strauss nor Lewis has said publicly how they plan to vote—in a recent candidate questionnaire, Strauss told the Seattle Times he was a “maybe” on the law—if they were to vote against the bill, opponents aligned with Davison and Nelson could blame them, and the council generally, for tying the city attorney’s hands and allowing open drug use to continue. The campaign ads practically write themselves.
While it’s true that the city generally incorporates new state laws into its code, the proposed criminalization bill itself actually breaks from that convention, by picking and choosing which parts of the state law the city should adopt.
On Tuesday, expect to hear the argument that it would be highly unusual for the council not to incorporate new state laws into its municipal code, and the counter-argument that refusing to criminalize drug possession at the local level sends an important message that Seattle’s priorities are different than the state’s.
While it’s true that the city generally incorporates new state laws into its code, the proposed criminalization bill itself actually breaks from that convention, by picking and choosing which parts of the state law the city should adopt. According to the council staff analysis, the ordinance “only adopts some portions of the state bill” because some of the provisions include “work that SPD and CAO are not focused upon.” So the council does have, and is already exercising, discretion when it decides whether to make local laws conform with the state’s.
Even the bill’s proponents have acknowledged that the police and courts are unlikely to prioritize low-level drug cases over more serious misdemeanors, such as domestic violence and DUI; the Seattle Police Department is currently hundreds of officers shy of its hiring goals, and the city attorney’s office, county public defense department, and Seattle Municipal Court are also short-staffed.
The state law encourages prosecutors to refer defendants t diversion and treatment programs, but that would require additional funding beyond what the city has already provided for new adult pre-trial diversion programs. (The funding has been sitting at the Human Services Department, unspent, since the council allocated it in 2021.) The city attorney’s office has said it plans to use those diversion funds, once they’re available, for a different purpose: Taking on cases that would have gone to community court, a therapeutic court from which Davison unilaterally withdrew the city last week.
“Building out the needed infrastructure to be able to address root causes of these issues and get individuals into treatment and services may require time and resources,” the central staff memo notes.
Some—including PubliCola guest columnist Lisa Daugaard, who argues that the outcome of the drug law debate is largely beside the point—are unconvinced that the new law will result in mass arrests, prosecutions, and jail, because the city has already reduced its alliance on punitive strategies, even before the Blake decision forced the legislature to pass a new state law. Mayor Harrell, Daugaard wrote, oversees SPD, “and has gone out of his way to make clear that he has no intention of arresting, jail or referring drug users for prosecution.”
Opponents of the proposed new drug laws say that argument is short-sighted, because priorities can change, but laws are permanent. “It is extremely dangerous precedent for a bill to be passed that criminalizes [drug use] and where our elected officials try to placate advocates and community members by saying that they will that they will be able to manage it,” Frederique said during Tuesday’s teach-in. “Those people are temporary actors. Election happen all the time. And what people will look at is the law.”