Signs and shouts filled Seattle City Council chambers Tuesday night as councilmembers voted to approve an ordinance making the use or possession of illicit drugs a gross misdemeanor.
“You have blood on your hands,” activists can be heard shouting after the 6-3 vote in a video by journalist Jonathan Choe.
Critics call it a War on Drugs 2.0, but supporters hope enforcement will improve public safety and help push addicts into treatment.
Those who use or possess illegal drugs in the Emerald City can be subject to gross misdemeanor charges, although the ordinance does encourage police to prioritize diversion. A gross misdemeanor allows a judge to impose more jail time than under a regular misdemeanor.
But the council’s bill recommends arrests only when an individual “presents a threat of harm to others,” The Seattle Times reported.
“I hope that we see a measurable increase in the number of people who are getting well, who are taking advantage of services and who are getting off the street,” Councilmember Andrew Lewis said, according to KING 5. “And I hope that we see accountability for people who are declining those services, who continue to disrupt public services on our streets by not taking advantage of them.”
Lewis and Councilmember Lisa Herbold both voted in favor of the revised ordinance after originally voting against it in June.
The city ordinance mirrors Washington state’s misdemeanor drug possession law passed earlier this year after the state’s supreme court ruled its previous felony drug law was unconstitutional. The state law makes drug use and knowing possession punishable by up to 180 days in jail, a $1,000 fine, or both.
Councilmember Tammy Morales, who voted against the ordinance twice, called the bill “ineffective.”
“It adds potential racial harm and makes false promises at a time when folks are desperate for solutions,” Morales said. “This bill is unnecessary, dare I say performative.”
The bill will take effect 30 days after Mayor Bruce Harrell signs it, which he pledged to do in a statement after the vote.
“As soon as this bill reaches my desk, I will sign it,” Harrell wrote, calling the vote a “needed step forward” to address Seattle’s drug epidemic.
There have been 761 fatal overdoses involving fentanyl so far this year in King County, already surpassing last year’s fentanyl deaths, according to public health data.
“Fentanyl is tragically killing thousands in our city and around the country, and we need urgency and innovative solutions to make change,” Harrell said.
About a dozen people lined the back of council chambers, holding signs listing “reasons why we cannot allow [Seattle Police Department] to use their discretion.” One sign referenced a recently released video showing an officer joking and laughing about a woman who was struck and killed by a patrol car.
“Our police department doesn’t care about the law,” community member Alexander Mayben said, according to the Times. “Our police department appears to be inconvenienced at best by the need to ensure public safety.”