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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Westneat: Bellingham gets tough on drugs

By Danny Westneat
Published: April 17, 2023, 6:01am

Bellingham is hardly a get-tough kind of town. The Lonely Planet travel guide extols the city’s “laid-back” and “libertine” vibe, and a few years ago it was picked as the “most hippie” town in the state. Even some real estate agents market it for its nothing-is-too-weird ways.

It’s also among the more left-wing towns politically, having voted 80 percent to 20 percent for the Democrat in the last presidential election.

So it was striking — and probably a leading indicator for the rest of the state — that Bellingham just made it a crime to use hard drugs in public.

The city council was almost apologetic about it.

“In some sense, this is an intervention,” said one council member, Lisa Anderson, adding that she’s lost family members to drug addiction. “I don’t want to put people in jail. … I truly feel like we need to do something.”

The Bellingham City Council voted 5-2 to authorize police to arrest people who “inject, ingest (or) inhale” controlled substances such as fentanyl or meth out in public, on the streets. Using drugs openly could be charged as a misdemeanor — though they all said the goal is to use the “stick” of a possible arrest to get people to try treatment.

“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.