Seattle seeks path forward on criminalizing public drug use after failure to pass Council

Jun 29, 2023
Written by WR Communications


On June 6, the Seattle City Council was expected to pass legislation to incorporate the state’s new drug criminalization law into the City’s municipal code. But, at the last moment, Councilmember Andrew Lewis surprised his colleagues by voting “no,” killing the legislation by a 5-4 vote. Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen sponsored the legislation in consultation with Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison.

The Seattle City Attorney is only empowered to prosecute crimes enumerated in the Seattle Municipal Code. Currently, drug possession and public use are not crimes under Seattle’s code. This legislation would have made public use and possession of controlled substances illegal under the City’s municipal code, thereby authorizing the City Attorney to prosecute those offenses.

Councilmember Nelson insisted that the goal is not to put offenders in jail. “The central goal of this legislation is to provide a tool to incentivize treatment,” explained Nelson.

Councilmember Lewis expressed frustration with a recent decision by the City Attorney to discontinue working with the community court as a diversion option for misdemeanor offenses. Lewis stated, “I was prepared to [vote for the bill]. I think it is generally proper for us to do it. But with the ending of community court without any additional process, I just can’t do it today. I just can’t.”

While Lewis expressed optimism that the Council could soon amend and reconsider the legislation, the Mayor announced the creation of a 24-person task force to develop recommendations for the bill, which likely means the legislation will not be before the Council again for several weeks. The Mayor took this action after The Seattle Times editorial board criticized the Mayor and City Attorney for their roles in the Council’s failure to pass the drug law.

Recent polling shows strong public concern about drug use and violent crime in Seattle. A Seattle Times/Suffolk University poll found that 48% of Seattleites listed drug use as their top public safety concern, followed by violent crime (33%). In that same poll, Mayor Harrell enjoyed a 57% job approval rating, well above the Council’s 34% approval.


Return to newsletter