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News / Northwest

King County sees drug law proposal

Bill would make public drug use a misdemeanor

By David Gutman, The Seattle Times
Published: April 27, 2023, 8:19pm

SEATTLE — Public drug use would be a misdemeanor in unincorporated areas of King County, punishable by up to 90 days in jail, under new legislation proposed by Metropolitan King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn.

Dunn’s legislation is the first attempt in the state’s largest county to deal with the fallout of the Legislature’s failure to pass drug possession legislation before its session ended last weekend.

Washington’s drug possession law will expire July 1, leaving no penalty in state law and leaving counties and cities free to adopt a hodgepodge of local ordinances.

The Legislature has been contending with how much to penalize drug possession since 2021, when the state Supreme Court, in the State v. Blake decision, threw out the state’s felony drug possession statute as unconstitutional. That year, lawmakers passed a stopgap measure classifying possession of drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine as a misdemeanor.

Dunn’s proposed ordinance, which would apply only in unincorporated areas of King County, not in Seattle and the county’s 38 other cities and towns, would make it illegal to “knowingly use a controlled substance in a public place.”

“The real goal of this legislation is to showcase to the governor and legislative leadership that a patchwork approach is not the preferable way to address this issue,” Dunn said in an interview. “The legislature needs to have the courage to take this on.”

The county law would remain in effect until it is superseded by a state law.

“Enabling open air drug use in our communities hurts everyone — not only our children and law-abiding citizens, but the drug users themselves who are, tragically, dying in droves from overdoses,” Dunn said in a prepared statement. “King County must act immediately to protect the safety of our communities by making the consumption of dangerous drugs in public an arrestable offense.”

Dunn said his legislation focused on public drug use, rather than simple possession, because it’s an easier sell to his colleagues on the County Council.

Dunn is one of two conservatives on the nine-member County Council.

“Using drugs out in the public, in front of businesses, stores, shops, playgrounds, in parks, that’s a pretty obvious no-no,” he said.

Council Chair Dave Upthegrove signed on as a co-sponsor Wednesday, calling the focus on public drug use a “gentle approach.”

“My goal is to help drive action at the state level,” Upthegrove said. “It makes no sense to have use of drugs in public be legal, and a patchwork is better than nothing.”

Democratic leaders in the Legislature thought they had agreed on a compromise drug bill Sunday night, the last day of the legislative session. It would have made drug possession a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail, while also funding hundreds of millions of dollars of drug treatment.

But the bill was voted down, with unanimous Republican opposition, and 15 progressive Democrats opposed it as well, saying the penalties were too harsh.