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Seattle mayor proposes revised drug policy amidst opposition to state’s controlled substance law

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Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell is asking members of the City Council who voted against adopting the state’s controlled substance law to consider an amended plan.

Harrell is offering a proposal that would align the city’s code with new state law, making possession and public use of drugs such as fentanyl, a gross misdemeanor. But it would also emphasize diversion and health programs, and spend $27 million to pay for opioid treatment and related facilities. Seattle saw a 72% increase in overdose deaths from 2021 to 2022.

The “announcements represent important steps forward toward a safer, healthier Seattle, as we continue to act with urgency to build out a bold health-first approach, help those in need, curtail impacts of public drug consumption, and hold dealers and traffickers accountable,” Harrell said in a statement Monday.

The City Council declined to adopt the new state law in a 5-4 June vote. Opponents said the law could result in harsher enforcement, especially for low-income people and people of color, and could revitalize the war on drugs.

Harrell’s plan comes after he appointed a task force — including City Council members and public safety experts — to further work on the measure for a month. The $27 million would come from settlement money the city received from opioid lawsuits, Harrell said.

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The measure also informs police that “diversion, treatment, and other alternatives to booking are the preferred approach,” and instructs them to consider “whether the individual, through their actions and conduct, presents a threat of harm” to themselves or others before arrests are made on either charge, The Seattle Times reported.

“This package is a balanced approach to respond to the crisis fentanyl has brought to our streets,” Councilmember Andrew Lewis said Monday in a statement. “This legislation, that I will co-sponsor, responds to the needs I laid out at the beginning of this process and gives our first responders the tools they need to divert to services where possible and make arrests when necessary.”

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Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell has proposed a drug measure that would align with state law, and adding $27 million for treatment. 

Lewis was the swing vote that caused the June measure to fail, KUOW reported.

The Washington law signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in May struck a balance between public order and compassion for people struggling with substance abuse, lawmakers said at the time.

Legislators had been under pressure to pass a bill this year because a temporary law that made intentional drug possession illegal was due to expire July 1. Unless the Legislature passed a new law, drug possession would have been decriminalized under state law.

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The state law makes it a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail for the first two drug possession offenses and up to a year after that. But police and prosecutors would be encouraged to divert cases for treatment or other services. The state measure provides $44 million for investments that include methadone mobile units, crisis centers and short-term housing for people with substance use disorders.

The temporary measure was approved by state lawmakers after the Washington Supreme Court in 2021 struck down as unconstitutional the state law making drug possession a felony because it did not require prosecutors to prove someone knowingly had the drugs. Washington was the only state in the country without that requirement.

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