Four Seattle-area drug policy experts speaking on a June 22 panel agreed on one thing: Locking people up for possessing or using drugs in public is a very bad idea, no matter what city and state officials seem to think.
The panel, titled “Beyond the Blake Decision: Understanding Washington’s New War on Drugs,” was organized by Real Change. The speakers were cannabis legalization pioneer and ACLU-WA Director of Political Strategies Alison Holcomb; Washington state Representative and DESC Deputy Director Nicole Macri (D-Seattle); VOCAL-WA organizer and harm reduction expert Deaunte Damper; and special guest James P., a friend of the paper who has lived experience of homelessness, incarceration and involvement in the drug trade.
“I was there [in jail] for 18 months. I saw numerous people that were in and out, just for a lot of times,” James said, sharing his observations about how imprisonment affects people’s drug use. “It’s just a cycle of going back and forth. People aren’t going to be able to get off their drugs and the addiction until they’re ready.”
The panel conversation came in the wake of a series of actions at the state level that, ultimately, made public drug use and possession a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to 364 days in jail. That punishment is more severe than the one that had existed for the previous two years, since the state’s Supreme Court knocked down Washington’s felony drug possession statute as unconstitutional.
Shortly after that bill passed, center-right Seattle City councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen joined City Attorney Ann Davison, a Republican, in proposing an ordinance to criminalize drug possession and public use at the city level. Davison was adamant that she prosecute drug possession and public use violations in Seattle Municipal Court rather than leave it up to newly elected King County Prosecutor Leesa Manion.
The ordinance failed 4-5, due to Davison’s poorly timed move to end the city’s participation in the Community Court program. Within days of the loss, Mayor Bruce Harrell convened a task force charged with proposing a watered-down version that could earn five votes.
All signs point to a renewal of the war on drugs. And we know exactly who the victims of that war were, Holcomb said in her opening remarks on the panel.
“What we are going to see is that our most vulnerable members of our communities — who are disproportionately people of color, people who are
LGBTQIA+, people who have mental health issues and [people] who cannot afford to use their drugs in privacy — will be subjected to greater risk of arrest, being booked into jail, being strip searched, being locked in a cage and having the physical and mental traumas associated with that experience,” she said.
While Seattle’s proposed ordinance got the most attention, cities and counties statewide have proposed their own versions. Many included language urging the use of pre-trial diversion, Community Court and other non-carceral options for offenders. The idea is to encourage users to seek treatment in order to avoid jail.
We’ve also seen how that plays out, Damper said.
“Instantly when I thought about [the treatment provisions], I thought about some of my community folks that don’t get that access to care,” Damper said.
“That because of the color of their skin or their orientation will not get that access. I just always just kind of find it more harmful, not just for us out here in King County, but even for our people of color that are out there in those smaller rural counties like Whatcom … where you know that once they get caught, even with a pipe, that they can be going down for even longer than expected.”
Damper, visibly emotional, suggested that the inherent prejudice baked into the “carrot-and-stick” model of treatment and incarceration stemmed from how the bill’s authors had failed to engage with the drug users and frontline outreach workers who understand the issue.
“I didn’t see very many [politicians] going out into their counties trying to have conversations with people with lived experience,” he said. “I think that they used fear tactics. I think that they spent more time recording people while they’re in crisis, to scare people into this specific bill, rather than actually going out there and giving people the equitable treatment and care.
“Going into some of the jails and prisons, which are already over overcrowded with community members in crisis — they would have found their answers then,” Damper said. “But I think what they chose to do was to be performative and go back to what they know because it’s safer.”
Macri — who voted against SB 5536 and the previous iteration of the bill that failed in this year’s regular legislative session, as well as the original 2021 “Blake fix” bill — said she had seen carceral solutions fail too much already to fall for new ones.
“My reason for … voting against these bills really comes from my personal and professional experience knowing and working with and working to support drug users for many years,” she said.
“Working to support people who use drugs in getting stable housing, getting appropriate care for substance use disorder [and] getting appropriate care for trauma psychiatric conditions [has given me] a deep understanding of what works and what doesn’t.”
Jail, Macri reiterated, definitely doesn’t.
“When I’ve talked to people, I’ve not had anyone tell me, ‘I believe my experience in jail helped me.’ They may say, ‘I believe my experience getting clean for some period of time was helpful. I could have done that — and it would have been far more humane if I was able to do that — not when I was incarcerated,’” Macri said.
Holcomb agreed that the bill was unnecessary, even more so because the type of behavior it is designed to target is already heavily criminalized.
“There’s not a politician — except for Representative Macri and a few of her friends — who doesn’t love to pass a new criminal law. So we have hundreds of criminal laws that cover just about every behavior that we could find potentially obnoxious,” Holcomb said.
As an example, she noted that smoking fentanyl on a bus or in a bus stop — one of the behaviors advocates of increased criminalization frequently cite — is already illegal. Laws that restrict smoking and vaping include smoking fentanyl.
“If the city attorney wants to start arresting and charging people for that behavior, she’s welcome to. I wouldn’t invite her to, but she’s been able to do that since long before we even started talking about the Blake decision,” Holcomb said.
She also noted that, if we simply want to get drugs away from users, police are already authorized to seize any illegal drugs they find under the state’s asset forfeiture laws.
The final lightning round of questions asked panelists to provide two- to three-sentence answers to: “If you had a magic wand and could change one aspect of our state’s drug policy, what would it be?”
James, who was the first panelist to point out that eradicating all drug use in society was unrealistic, suggested we start focusing on safer ways to use.
“I think we should do proper reeducation and safe drug use, like an adult drug use. They say ‘drink responsibly’ for drinking. If we’re going to go forward with decriminalization of drugs, we should really teach people how to be safe,” he said. “Safe consumption sites are a definite plus. I’ve seen some videos online about [Canada’s] sites, and they work wonders compared to what we have here, which is nothing right now.”
Holcomb echoed James’ call for safe consumption sites, while suggesting we go even further into providing a safe supply of drugs.
“For me, it would be safe supply, and by that I mean that we start with supervised consumption spaces where people who are getting their drugs from wherever can go. They can have their drugs tested by someone. They’re establishing trusted relationships with people who are showing up in a way that’s all about caring [for] them, not shaming them or punishing them,” she said.
Providing housing, Macri argued, could kill two birds with one stone. Given that most of what society deems to be “problematic drug use” is simply drug use that’s highly visible, providing people with a private place to do drugs would eliminate a lot of the impact of drug use on public spaces.
Furthermore, she noted, stable housing has been shown by numerous studies to help people reduce their drug use or use in safer ways.
“I spent my career on providing safe housing for people with no preconditions, and making sure that everyone has access to a safe place to live. And so I think that is essential,” she concluded.
Damper, with a nod to the human toll of our existing approach to drugs, said he would use his wave of the wand to change the political climate.
“If I had a magic wand, I’d be able to bring my friends back. And I can’t,” he said. “But if I could change something, I think it would just be to re-educate our politicians and our leaders that are out here in the community.”
Will any of those good ideas come to fruition? After her experience in this year’s legislative session, Macri thinks we’ve got a long way to go.
“We all understand that seatbelts are a form of harm reduction that reduces our harm when we wear a seatbelt. Very well accepted. But the concepts of harm reduction as they apply to substance use, I think we still have a lot of education to do,” she said. “In terms of the political climate, what I’ve learned is, okay, we’ve got to do a lot more ... than we thought we needed to.”
Damper noted that educating politicians, policymakers and the public starts with building an alternative narrative to the one that tough-on-crime candidates have been so successful at promoting. And, even when it seems futile, advocates must continue to engage politically.
“I’m afraid of what is going to happen, and I think it’s really just going to take all of you on the line,” he said. “Real Change, thank you for even giving me this access. This is not me calling anyone out. This is an opportunity for us to really spend this year calling people in, writing your city council representatives and your mayors and saying, ‘Hey, let me talk to you about harm reduction and safe supply, because you need to know about it.’”
However, while Damper was eager to help electeds better understand the issue, he also very much expected them to meet advocates halfway. More than halfway, maybe.
“People are in survival mode, and they don’t need to be behind bars. … They need access — equitable access to care and real politicians that care about their real needs,” Damper said.
“Get your ass outside, because that’s really where the work is.”
“Beyond the Blake Decision: Understanding Washington’s New War on Drugs” was streamed June 22 and is available on YouTube through the Real Change News account.
Read more of the June 28-July 4, 2023 issue.