ACLU-WA statement on City Council vote on ordinance proposing to criminalize drug possession and use under Seattle’s local laws

News Release: 
Wednesday, June 7, 2023

SEATTLE – Seattle City Council voted down a proposed ordinance that would have added criminalization of drug possession and use to the city’s code and expanded the authority of the city attorney to file criminal cases in the city’s municipal courts. The proposal had bypassed debate in the Public Safety & Human Services Committee, a fact noted by several speakers providing public testimony this afternoon.

Seattle community members criticized the proposal as a continuation of the failed policies of the War on Drugs, relying on criminalization to address profound public health crises. 

The criminalization of simple drug possession has perpetuated racial disparities and failed to prevent either the arrival of fentanyl or the current overdose crisis. Moreover, it has focused policing and prosecution on the most vulnerable people caught up in the War on Drugs: 80% of arrests have been for drug possession and use – not manufacture, importing, or distribution. These policies have ruined people's lives, exacerbating the root causes of their substance use disorder and presenting new barriers to housing and employment. 

Seattle residents deserve modern, evidence-based, well-considered solutions that build on this century’s learnings about what works to stabilize and move people onto the continuum of recovery. The proposed ordinance represented a throwback to racist, dog-whistle “tough on crime” policies of the 1980s and 1990s that led to stop-and-frisk harassment of Black and brown people and a wave of mass incarceration that continues to divide police and communities. 

Alison Holcomb, ACLU-WA's political strategies director, had this reaction: 

“Proponents of this measure argued that it was different from the War on Drugs, that it was a new tool to help get people into treatment, to save people’s lives. Let’s be clear: use of the criminal sanction has always been, and will always be, a failed strategy rooted in shaming. We know that being handcuffed, strip searched, locked in a cell, and subjected to the public humiliation of criminal charges and court records that will forever hinder full participation in our society does nothing to treat substance use disorder. Only public health solutions do that. They should receive, at a minimum, as much time, consideration, and investment as was granted the failed War on Drugs. The residents of Seattle deserve as much.”