Photo depicting the exterior steps and sign for Seattle City Hall.

Proposed Council Bill Would Allow City Attorney’s Office to Prosecute Drug Use and Possession

by Lauryn Bray

The Seattle City Council recently released a memorandum announcing that the Council will discuss and possibly vote on Council Bill (CB) 120586, an “ordinance relating to the possession and public use of controlled substances,” on June 6. The vote will determine if the provisions introduced in a new state law will be adopted into Seattle Municipal Code, giving the City Attorney’s Office (CAO) jurisdiction to prosecute cases of known possession or use of illegal or controlled substances. 

Until February 2021, possession of illegal or controlled substances was prosecuted by Washington State as a felony offense. Because felonies are not within the authority of the CAO to prosecute, the City has never been involved in the adjudication of these crimes. After the Washington Supreme Court ruled the felony possession law unconstitutional, the Washington State Legislature passed the Engrossed Senate Bill (ESB) 5476, which made possession of illegal or controlled substances a misdemeanor, to retain some sort of penalty for drug possession and use. With ESB 5476 set to expire on July 1, the Washington State Legislature passed 2E2SSB 5536 on May 16, which makes possession or public use of an illegal or controlled substance a gross misdemeanor. The State legislation will go into effect Aug. 15. 

The new City legislation would give the CAO authority to prosecute drug-related offenses — something University of Washington School of Law professor Angélica Cházaro says hasn’t happened in years. “The City of Seattle is considering using our precious resources — despite the budget shortfall that we’re facing — to prosecute crimes of drug possession and public use,” said Cházaro. “[The] legislation that is pending before City Council would add the crimes of drug possession and public use of drugs to our municipal code for the first time. Because, except for a brief period when Seattle prosecuted marijuana possession, the City of Seattle has not been in the business of prosecuting folks for using drugs.” 

On May 31, a coalition of local advocacy organizations, labor unions, service providers, doctors, and lawyers organized an in-person and virtual “#NoNewWarOnDrugs Seattle Emergency Teach-In” in response to the proposed legislation. 

“Research has shown that when people are arrested and incarcerated — either in prisons, or in jails — they become at increased risk of death from overdose in the time after they are released from incarceration,” said Thomas Fitzpatrick, an infectious disease physician with the University of Washington and an expert in harm reduction and public health approaches to drug use. 

Fitzpatrick added, “We have colleagues down at OHSU in Portland, who just looked at data, which followed people in the time, the years and weeks after they were released from incarceration in prison, and found that in those first two weeks after people are released from incarceration, they have nearly 10 times the risk of overdosing than the general population or people who are otherwise exposed to opioids.”

The event, moderated by Cházaro, included commentary from six additional speakers: Fitzpatrick; Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance; Anita Khandelwal, public defender and director of the King County Department of Public Defense; Vidal “Blaze” Vincent, co-president of the Freedom Project; Malika Lamont, director of VOCAL-WA; and Brandie Flood, director of community justice at REACH.

The drug schedule classification system was introduced for the first time in former President Richard Nixon’s Controlled Substances Act of 1970. The passage of this act, along with the Crime Control Act of 1970 (also referred to as the Crime Control Act), sanctioned the subsequent mass prosecution of drug-related offenses and signaled the start of the War on Drugs. Opponents say the new City legislation is a continuation of the War on Drugs.

“Even if we think prosecution is the right response, the City has zero infrastructure developed to appropriately or effectively prosecute drug crimes,” said Khandelwal. “I think the County has many more resources. They have a drug diversion court. They have a diversion program called therapeutic diversion.”

The City Council memorandum states that since City Attorney Ann Davison has been vocal about her plans to prosecute drug dealers and users alike, the CAO is likely to prosecute more cases than the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (KCPAO). However, the City Council is aware the CAO has yet to propose a plan outlining how the City will begin to prosecute the expected flood of drug-related cases, and whether rehabilitative programs will be developed to address the specific needs of individuals struggling through active addiction. The memorandum states, “CAO has not provided clarity regarding: (1) volume of cases they anticipate pursuing; (2) the resources they would need to expend in pursuit of these cases; (3) the diversion opportunities they would make available to those charged; nor (4) which communities would be impacted by or the focus of the CAO.”

“The purpose of the bill is to allow law enforcement to intervene and disrupt dangerous drug activity,” Davison wrote in a statement to the Emerald. “The legislation is only one of many tools available in our attempt to stem the overdose epidemic and address the public safety impacts of the extraordinary increase of fentanyl and meth on our streets. These drugs took the lives of over 500 people in the City of Seattle last year. Looking the other way is not an option.”

If the City Council votes in favor of the CAO, authority to prosecute drug-related offenses within city lines will be handed to the CAO — regardless of whether programs designed to keep individuals sober after their release from a detention facility have been effectively implemented. 

“Very simple and plain: It is literally life and death. People will die because of these policies,” said Vincent. 

The Seattle City Council will be discussing the bill during its full Council meeting on June 6 at 2 p.m. It is presently slated as the last agenda item of the meeting. All Council meetings are streamed live and posted afterward on The Seattle Channel.

Lauryn Bray is a writer and reporter for the South Seattle Emerald. She has a degree in English with a concentration in creative writing from CUNY Hunter College. She is from Sacramento, California, and has been living in King County since June 2022.

📸 Featured Image: Seattle City Hall. (Photo: Ashley Archibald, courtesy of Real Change)

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