Law & Justice

Anacortes proposes making drug use a crime

City leaders intend to divert defendants to treatment
April 8, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.

Staff Reporter

Leaders in Anacortes, a city with less than 20,000 residents, seek a solution to a problem that until recently has not been associated with small cities. Council members appear ready to rewrite the city's criminal code to make public drug use a crime.

The city council is expected to vote Monday, April 10, on an ordinance that would make drug use in public places including streets, sidewalks and parking lots a gross misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty of 364 days in jail.

“Let’s give [the Anacortes Police Department] a new tool to more effectively deal with a situation where they come upon people who are actively using illegal drugs right in front of them,” city council member Ryan Walters said at a March 27 council meeting. 

Police have been unable to respond effectively to public drug use after the state Legislature changed the drug-possession law in 2021 to require law enforcement to refer a suspect to drug treatment instead of making an arrest. The current version of a bill now under debate in the Legislature would make drug possession a simple misdemeanor statewide, with a 90-day maximum jail sentence. Drug referrals would be encouraged but not required. 

“I think referrals to drug treatment are great, but they don’t work by themselves,” Walters said. 

“We have to get control of the drug problem in Anacortes, and nationally and regionally,” he added. “It’s exploded because of fentanyl and all of these other things.” 

Coincidentally, the Bellingham City Council will consider a similar ordinance on April 10 that would make public drug use a simple misdemeanor.

Walters said the intent of Anacortes' new ordinance would be to have the city prosecutor refer drug users to Skagit County Community Court, where they can resolve their criminal charges by completing a treatment program.

“You can throw people in jail, and it’s very expensive for us, and we don’t have a great track record as a nation of yielding success out of that,” Walters said. “If we can get people into treatment and get people up out of drugs, that’s the best possible solution.”

Anacortes City Council’s April 10 meeting starts at 6 p.m. at the Municipal Building, 904 6th St. Instructions for remote viewing and participation in the meeting are available on the City of Anacortes website.

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