Black-and-white photo depicting hands of a handcuffed prisoner folded over prison bars.

OPINION | The War on Drugs Failed: Will Seattle Choose a Losing Strategy?

by Michael “Renaissance”

Simply doing anything because something needs to be done is often the enemy of doing the right thing. People are dying because of fentanyl. People are also being swallowed by addiction. However, adding laws that criminalize drug use, expanding the prison industrial complex with laws that lead police to stop-and-frisk and are used to target Black and Brown folx, all under the pretense of helping people struggling with addiction, is a failed strategy. 

This is precisely what Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison and Seattle City Councilmembers Alex Pederson and Sara Nelson are attempting to accomplish with Council Bill 120516. The legislation would make possession and usage in public a misdemeanor in Seattle. Officials have inaccurately claimed this is simply a technical amendment and that the City is required to adopt any crime the State passes. However, the City Council has the legislative authority to decide what laws get adopted and which ones don’t. Just as Seattle didn’t adopt the temporary drug law passed by the State in 2021, they don’t have to adopt the law passed by the State in May. This legislation asks Seattle to refresh the War on Drugs.

The War on Drugs of the 1980s failed to stop drug usage. It also criminalized and demonized Black and Brown people throughout the country and was a major part of the rise of the prison industrial complex. By the end of the 1990s, Black men were considered an “endangered species.” So many of us were locked up or had been killed. By 2005, the United States, which was only one-fifth of the world’s population, boasted 25% of the world’s prisoners. The impact on our communities, having so many of our people ripped away from us, reverberates today. This broke apart the social cohesion in our communities, making us more susceptible and vulnerable to forces such as gentrification, which further dislocated and disorganized our communities. 

The accusation that Black men were “super predators” by Hillary Clinton and the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill, signed into federal law by former President Bill Clinton with heaps of money for Student Resource Officers (SRO), went after our children, creating the school-to-prison pipeline. The “zero tolerance” policies brought in by the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, and the Crime Bill, led to the criminalization of our youth through expulsions and arrests. This hampered educational attainment and professional prospects. It contributed to the perception that the youth of our community were adults that cops feel justified shooting and that courts treat as adults. Our communities have been criminalized, incarcerated, and murdered from birth, and none of this has reduced drug usage or addiction or “crime.”

Making drug possession and usage a crime to compel people into treatment under the guise of saving lives is not only a failure but could result in a lifetime of hardship or even a death sentence. People are between 40 times and 129 times more likely to die from an overdose after being released from jail. One conviction, whether time is served or not, can create 44,000 different legal barriers or “collateral consequences.” These include barriers to housing and access to public assistance such as food and health care, and even jobs — the primary things that prevent people from being wrangled into the revolving door of the criminal justice system. For immigrants, even if no jail time is sentenced, a drug conviction is disastrous. Misdemeanor convictions are a gateway to more charges and negative consequences that grow in severity. 

Many of our elected officials lack the political will to employ the strategies that have been proven to work and do not expand the prison industrial complex and the police institution and budgets. In comparison to police budgets, City officials toss pennies toward alternative community-based and holistic approaches. This gesture provides them with a flimsy reed upon which to make the argument, “Look we tried this and it didn’t work.” But the reality is that the alternatives to the carceral system have never been appropriately resourced and have never had the chance to be successful.

In the book, No More Police, Mariame Kaba and Andrea Ritchie write, “The systemic denial of accessible, nonjudgemental, and noncoercive mental health supports drives the very behavior that is condemned as antisocial. Focusing on drug addiction as an individual ‘condition’ to be cured rather than meeting the needs of people who use drugs as they define them, distracts us from the social conditions that shape and drive substance use.” Lack of access to health care, mental health care, accessible jobs, education, quality housing — that is, our basic human needs — are the primary driving factors of substance use and so-called “crime.” 

What we want is to shift from the business as usual of increased criminalization and policing and instead prioritize community-based alternatives that address root causes.

Our community is concerned about what is happening to our people, that many are turning to drugs as a means to cope with the day-to-day, and that many are dying as a result. We are also concerned about the harm that emerges within the community as a by-product of drug usage. Every life is precious and so is the quality of life that each of us gets to enjoy. This is why it is not good enough for us to simply do anything because something needs to be done. We need to be doing the right thing. The War on Drugs failed and so will a New War on Drugs.

Join us Tuesday, June 6, 2023, at Seattle City Hall at 2 p.m. to tell Seattle City Council that criminalizing drug use is not the answer. They have the power to reject this ordinance and not adopt state law. In-person testimony is preferable, but online is also effective. It is important that this proposed ordinance is not passed under the radar of the community members most impacted by it. Seattle City Council has not sought our counsel to ascertain what we want or why. They are moving paternalistically. We intend to interrupt that process. They need to hear from us because simply doing anything, because something needs to be done, is the enemy of doing the right thing.

You will find all the information you need to sign up for public comment at #NoNewWarOnDrugs

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

📸 Featured Image: Photo via DANAI KHAMPIRANON/

Before you move on to the next story …
The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With over 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible. 
If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn't have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference. 
We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!