SEATTLE — In a press conference at times that seemed to be responding to criticism of his handling of the fentanyl crisis, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell said his city will have a drug possession law soon.
But he cautioned it may not be before the rest of the state adopts the gross misdemeanor on July 1.
Harrell was flanked by a couple of dozen of what he called his “workgroup” to codify the law after the City Council voted 5-4 to reject legislation to do just that.
The 45-minute-long press conference did little to advance the legislation, but Harrell seemed more intent on explaining his position as it relates to his history as a kid who graduated from Garfield High School in Seattle’s Central District.
“We survived the War on Drugs,” said Harrell, noting that his voice, and those of his friends, “were not at the center of that policy.”
“We will pass a law that allows our department to make arrests. I'm unambiguous on that,” said the Mayor. While not giving a timeline. He said he’ll also issue an executive order to study how many people are actively using fentanyl.
Harrell also suggested that state law will supersede any other discussion, but that’s the root of the whole debate. Critics have suggested that if the city doesn’t codify the law by July 1, it is de-facto legislation at a time when Seattle King County Public Health says fentanyl deaths are skyrocketing.
When Harrell was asked if his work group, or task force, will present legislation before that date he replied, “Good question. I don't know. I'm using the term coming weeks because, ultimately, it rests with the city council. I have, in my mind, what a great ordinance could look like.”
The King County Prosecutor’s Office has already indicated, despite a state law in place, that it can not handle additional gross misdemeanor cases without a contract from the city. Proponents of the law, like City Attorney Ann Davison and city councilmember Sara Nelson, said the lack of codification would be a signal to law enforcement to not arrest people for the crime.
“I don't see a world in which we would contract with King County to do the work that we can do right here,” said Nelson, who is a member of the workgroup. “Why would anybody arrest if they don't have a prosecutor behind them to file charges or divert those cases?”
“We haven't had a serious response to the fentanyl crisis in our city. This is a serious crisis, and we need a serious response,” said Downtown Seattle Association President Jon Scholes after the Mayor’s announcement. Scholes was quick to distance himself from Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who represents Downtown, and was the deciding vote to reject the ordinance last week.
When asked if his constituency can trust him this time, Lewis replied, “Because we're gonna get this done and pass the statute. I haven't said I'm not going to pass it. I've said that this is how we're going to do it. We're going to do it by actually putting in the infrastructure to get this work done.”