Screenshot depicting the interior meeting room of Seattle City Hall with City Councilmembers meeting.

Seattle City Council Passes Controversial Street Drug Legislation Amid Concerns Over Punishment Versus Treatment Options

by Luna Reyna

After over an hour of public comment, the Seattle City Council voted, 6 in favor, 3 opposed, to pass legislation that many argue is a regressive and harmful step back to the war on drugs era, while others claim it will help mitigate officer bias and improve access to substance use disorder care.

Prior legislation making drug possession and use gross misdemeanors with a maximum imprisonment time of 364 days went into effect across the state on July 1. At the end of July, Mayor Bruce Harrell announced efforts to address the impacts of fentanyl and other illegal drugs on Seattle residents and businesses after a similar bill was voted down in June.

The proposed legislation passed on Tuesday afternoon codifies “knowing possession of a controlled substance, and the knowing use of a controlled substance in a public place, as gross misdemeanors” into city law. The legislation also promises financial investments in drug treatment, overdose response, and diversion to the trusted programs already doing this work.

Before the council voted, several people commented on their lack of trust in the police to safely divert people instead of harming and criminalizing the city’s most vulnerable. Some pointed to the racially biased policing practices and the recently released video of Officer Daniel Auderer laughing and joking about the death of Jaahnavi Kandula, 23, who was hit and killed by a police car while crossing the street on Jan. 23.

The bill passed as amended with Councilmembers Kshama Sawant, Teresa Mosqueda, and Tammy Morales voting against, and Councilmembers Debora Juarez, Lisa Herbold, Andrew Lewis, Alex Pedersen, Dan Strauss, and Sara Nelson, voting to pass the bill. The bill will now be sent to the mayor for approval, which he said he will sign, followed by an “Executive Order in the next week to provide training and guidance to the police department on implementation, as well as metrics to track progress,” according to a press release issued after the council vote.

Morales spoke before the vote and called the legislation unnecessary and performative. “It adds potential racial harm and makes false promises at a time when folks are desperate for solutions.”

“I agree with those of you who say that this law isn’t a solution,” said Herbold before the vote. “I never thought it was a solution. It is one piece of policymaking that for the first time ever, pre-arrest and pre-booking diversion are enshrined in the law of Seattle as the preferred approach to those of you calling for other interventions.”

“This bill does not address the root causes of addiction, mental health, substance abuse, and trauma,” said Mosqueda before Tuesday’s vote. “Instead, the core tenets of this legislation give additional prosecutorial authority to our city attorney to incarcerate people for public consumption and greenlight the process for arrest in a public health crisis.”

Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison has touted “arrests and prosecutions” as a path to addiction recovery. Public commenters and the three dissenting councilmembers cited data on the dangers of Davison’s path to recovery including a seminal study that showed people who had been incarcerated in Washington State prisons were 129 times more likely to die from an overdose compared to the general public.

“There’s blood on your hands!” people chanted after the Seattle City Council passed the legislation.

It took months to reach this point as the mayor and City Council grappled with balancing criminal penalties with funding treatment options to tackle street drug use for people using fentanyl or other controlled substances.

Those issues were outlined in an August meeting of the Public Safety and Human Services Committee. Diversion and treatment service providers highlighted the gaps that need to be filled for the legislation to work.

The panel insights prompted amendments to the legislation that were voted on during last Tuesday’s committee meeting. Mosqueda was the only dissenting vote on the committee, largely because the designated $27 million will not meet the need.

Bridging the Funding Gap

According to Mosqueda, Purpose. Dignity. Action. (PDA), the overarching umbrella of the network of service programs like the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program that ​​diverts people engaged in low-level drug crime, prostitution, and crimes of poverty away from the criminal legal system into community-based interventions and CoLEAD, which provides temporary housing and intense case management, had to absorb about an $8 million gap in the 2023 budget. They are projecting that they will need to find somewhere between $6 to $8 million more in next year’s budget.

“If the funding gap from last year is the same, it will start to [harm] our ability to actually do what this bill purports that it will do,” Mosqueda said in last Tuesday’s committee meeting. “If we don’t fill this funding gap, it will harm LEAD and PDA’s ability to accept referrals, which are the centerpiece of what supposedly makes this bill different from previous iterations.”

Twenty million of the $27 million that Harrell announced in July towards programming, such as a post-overdose response team, mobile opioid medication delivery, and harm reduction comes from settlements from pharmaceutical companies involved in recent opioid lawsuits. According to Jamie Housen, the mayor’s communications director, the City will receive an average of $1.15 million per year over the next 18 years from the settlements.

According to Mosqueda, once you take out the funding that King County and the City holds back for administrative needs, it’s closer to $700,000 per year.

The remaining $7 million will go to “capital investments in facilities to provide services such as post-overdose care, opioid medication delivery, health hub services, long-term care management, and drop-in support,” according to the statement from the Mayor’s Office.

“Without the funding that is purported to come with this bill, we have no assurances that there will be the alternative structures and programs and diversion strategies to prevent people from going to jail,” said Mosquesda during last Tuesday’s meeting. “We do not have to pass this legislation. It is not a requirement that local jurisdictions codify what the state Legislature already passed … I want us to be spending our time and investments on focusing on how we get people into public health services, not how we double down and recreate a punitive system within our own city to try to prosecute more people without assurances that there will be funding for LEAD and organizations that support pre-arrest diversion strategies. We are putting the cart before the horse.”

Supportive Housing Access

A major gap for people using fentanyl or other controlled substances that service providers highlighted is housing.

Febben Fekadu, the director of housing at Evergreen Treatment Services, spoke about the need to expand housing for people to match their continuum of need, including transitional housing, recovery housing, permanent supportive housing, and services embedded within permanent supportive housing such as occupational therapy, nursing support, and mental health support.

“We are in desperate need for group homes or assisted living-type housing models that are tailored to the needs of drug users and invite people in, even if not yet in active recovery,” Fekadu said. She went on to explain that the current process for accessing such services is lengthy and complex, with access limited to those who are sober and insured, and with wait lists that are sometimes years long.

John Bousquet, participant support specialist supervisor at CoLEAD, echoed these sentiments: “As of now the need far exceeds the resources available, and if we’re really going to make a difference, we really have to make it easier to access resources and address the disparities that this population faces when accessing these resources in comparison to people that aren’t homeless.” Bousquet went on to explain that CoLEAD is only able to serve a small percentage of people in a temporary lodging setting, giving them access to intensive case management and wraparound care, when there are thousands more who need it.

“Nobody says, ‘I want to grow up and be homeless, hooked on drugs, selling my body, stealing and selling drugs to meet my very basic needs like food, shelter,’” Bousquet said. “How do you expect somebody to be able to pull their bootstraps up when they don’t have a place to lay their head?”

Bousquet shared that in his work, having a steady place for people to lay their head gives them the opportunity to become stable and access resources that support stability and reduce recidivism.

“CoLEAD and LEAD programs are great resources that are making a difference, but we need to be able to expand greatly in order to address this public health crisis on a scale that is our reality,” Bousquet said during the August meeting. “It didn’t happen overnight or without cost, and it won’t go away overnight or without cost.”

Supporting the Service Providers

Sean Soth, the director of health integration and innovation at Evergreen Treatment Services, pointed to another creative option for housing that the City has already invested in: hotels. The hotel purchases that were made during the peak of the pandemic were effective for a lot of people, according to Soth and studies of the efforts.

Soth acknowledged over the phone that there are concerns from community members about drug use and other things that occur there, but he hopes that instead of taking away the housing that has been successful there, hotel housing could be a service-rich environment that addresses some of these concerns. He said these programs need to be able to staff the necessary caseworkers in order to accomplish that kind of supportive housing.

According to Lisa Daugaard, the co-executive director at PDA, the regional LEAD programs have almost 1,000 active clients receiving wraparound services, but that does not reach the scale of the need. “The staffing is important,” Daugaard told the Emerald. “The housing itself, we just don’t have the permanent housing resources to match the volume as we need it.”

The network of care that currently exists would need to be able to serve roughly double the clientele being served now, according to Daugaard, who referenced the LEAD and central staff cost projects. She said that in order to serve another 1,000 high-needs community members, current staffing would also need to almost double.

According to Soth, the most needed positions, such as case managers and counselors, have high turnover rates. The work is extremely emotionally taxing, the service providers can experience residual trauma, and salaries are not in parity with physical health and behavioral health service providers, nor have they kept pace with inflation.

“Our providers are severely underpaid, and that creates a struggle for them in terms of surviving in what is one of the most expensive cities in the world,” Soth told the Emerald. “We desperately need an increase in the pay structure for behavioral health services … We still need to be realistic about what a living wage is and how we get people there, so I think we’re talking about a pretty significant need for funding into the behavioral health system. I don’t think that we see any real change without making significant changes to the amount of housing that’s available to folks and to ensuring that we have living wages for the people that provide the services.”

Jon Ehrenfeld, the Mobile Integrated Health program manager, shared information about their workload during the August meeting. Mobile Integrated Health is a collaboration between Seattle Fire and the Seattle Human Services Department that serves vulnerable adults throughout the City of Seattle with a primary focus on behavioral health substance use disorders, homelessness, extreme poverty, aging in place, and similar conditions. Last month Seattle Fire responded to approximately 110 overdose-related calls per week. They’ve recently begun piloting a new post-overdose response and follow up team.

“Those are just the [overdoses] that we’re aware of, so the volume right now is overwhelming,” Ehrenfeld said. “It’s crushing. It is creating, I think, a tremendous amount of stress and burnout for obviously the clients and the patients first and foremost, but everyone in the response ecosystem right now because of the gaps specific to fentanyl.”

Diversion or Criminalization

Each of these programs within the response ecosystem stressed the importance of individualized trauma-informed care in order to promote healing.

When the substance use disorder treatment process is coerced or forced through the criminal legal system, that process and trust is hindered because people see it as an extension of the criminal legal system, according to Soth.

According to Mosqueda, during the August meeting, LEAD assured the committee that with the current level of funding, they are prepared to prioritize all SPD referrals so that no one referred by SPD needs to be turned away for lack of diversion programming, making police referrals the main entry point into LEAD programming. Mosqueda shared that because these police referrals would increase without a substantial funding increase, LEAD would have to scale back other organic referrals to ensure there was bandwidth for the increase in SPD referrals.

Amendments to the bill loosened the language around diversion referrals, so an increase in SPD referrals may not be an issue if City Attorney Ann Davison’s “arrest and prosecution” route sends more people to jail versus treatment.

“This law isn’t about helping people recover from addiction or avoid overdose or improve their quality of life,” said Shemona Moreno, executive director of 350 Seattle, during public comment on Tuesday. “This law is about dehumanizing drug users, destabilizing people in already precarious situations, and expanding the carceral system which disproportionately harms Black, Brown, and Indigenous people and poor people. How can we pass a bill without seeing the budget which is coming soon and without knowing for sure their promises of diversion are going to happen, especially given the massive budget fall that we’ve been told about?”

“The core tenets of this legislation give additional prosecutorial authority to our city attorney to incarcerate people for public consumption and greenlight the process for arrest of a public health crisis,” said Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda before Tuesday’s vote. “I understand that there is an emphasis on pre-arrest diversion in this bill, but those sideboards are merely made out of cardboard if what we are doing is not following up that policy with actual dollars to increase, enhance and triple our investments into pre-arrest diversion strategies.”

Luna Reyna is a South Seattle writer and broadcaster whose work has identified, supported, and promoted the voices of the systematically excluded in service of liberation and advancing justice. She was Crosscut’s Indigenous Affairs Reporter and her work has appeared in the South Seattle Emerald, Prism Reports, and Talk Poverty. Luna is proud of her Little Shell Chippewa and Mexican heritage and is passionate about reporting that sheds light on colonial white supremacist systems of power.

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