“This is not the war on drugs,” contended Council Member Skip Williams, who also voted in favor. “Nobody is going to prison under this for the rest of their life. … We’re facing a crisis. Right now we don’t have the tools. This gives us a tool.”
What Bellingham is trying may not work. Even if it does, it will still suffer plenty of failure. What’s interesting, though, is how a liberal, counterculture town came to this point — of vaulting past cities like Seattle to effectively draw the line on using these drugs in public.
Bellingham had seen some high-profile drug deaths recently, including two teenagers who overdosed. The mayor, Seth Fleetwood, recounted meeting with the parents, which he called “difficult” and “very moving.” He also said the town is seeing more than two overdoses a day, a 70 percent increase over last year. Downtown residents and businesses have been calling for help.
“It’s really traumatic,” he said. “We’re all trying to find some way to create a humane response. Everyone’s working on this right now.
“We’re not hoping to push people into the dark. We’re saying that fentanyl should not be smoked on downtown streets because it’s dangerous for the individual that’s smoking it, and for the public bystanders, and it’s scaring people away.”
Fleetwood then apologized to the council for his stridency. He had expressed frustration at the idea Bellingham should wait, either for a better plan or for the state to act.
“This might help somebody now,” he pleaded. “It might alter some behavior.”
Urgency has been lacking in Seattle. King County declared fentanyl a public health emergency last summer, but hasn’t done much concrete since. Seattle government hasn’t held public discussions that come even close to the intensity of what just happened in Bellingham.
Bellingham may not have just the right fix, and there probably isn’t one. But Bellingham is a harbinger for something else — that for now, the debate about whether to decriminalize hard drugs is over.
Bellingham is Washington’s laid-back capital. But they were bold enough that they very well may have settled an intractable political debate.