After a summer debating a contentious drug enforcement bill, the Seattle City Council reversed course Tuesday, voting 6-3 to allow the City Attorney’s Office to prosecute knowing possession and public use of illicit drugs.
The council adopted a state bill into the city’s criminal code that allows the city to pursue new state charges for both offenses in an effort to combat public consumption of drugs. Over the last three years, the use of fentanyl and other drugs on public transit and in other public places has become more prevalent.
The controversial bill — which permits City Attorney Ann Davison to pursue gross misdemeanor charges for public drug use and possession — cleared the council after months of discussion, following a 5-4 vote against an earlier version of the bill in June.
Supporters of the vote say that enforcement will help with public safety and, in some cases, drive people into treatment.
“This is not a perfect bill, but it’s time to get this done because every day we [don’t] there are people that die,” Councilmember Sara Nelson, who has been pushing some version of the bill since April, said before voting in favor.
Opponents originally staved off the bill earlier this summer, citing concerns of over-enforcement and a return to a version of the “war on drugs,” during which Black and brown people were disproportionately jailed for low-level drug offenses.
“The bill before us remains ineffective. It adds potential racial harm and makes false promises at a time when folks are desperate for solutions,” said Councilmember Tammy Morales, who opposed the bill in both votes. “This bill is unnecessary, dare I say performative.”
After the original “no” vote, the council and a task force formed by Mayor Bruce Harrell spent the summer tweaking the bill to make it more agreeable, compelling two members to change their votes.
District 1 Councilmember Lisa Herbold — as chair of the Public Safety and Human Services committee — and District 7 Councilmember Andrew Lewis — as the representative for downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, where overdoses and public use are most prevalent — were the two converts who came around to the revised version of the bill after initially voting against its adoption in June.
“This is a commitment to not repeat the errors of the past,” Herbold said Tuesday, acknowledging the damage that jail time can cause and noting the emphasis of the revised bill on pre-arrest diversion.
Lewis, while being interrupted by opponents of the bill, said it was not going to be a “magic solution” to the drug crisis, but supported the improved version.
Ultimately, Councilmembers Herbold, Lewis, Nelson, Pedersen, Dan Strauss and Council President Debora Juarez approved the bill, while Morales, Teresa Mosqueda and Kshama Sawant continued to oppose the legislation, questioning whether enough had changed since the bill was rejected in June.
The vote was met with boos and members of the public yelling, “blood on your hands” and “murderer,” and swearing at the council.
The bill goes into effect, and prosecutorial decisions can be made, 30 days after it is signed by the mayor.
At a news conference earlier in the day, Harrell told reporters he “won’t waste a lot of time on signing” the bill if it passed.
This is a developing story and will be updated.