Bellingham council rejects mayor's bid to make drug use a crime

Council wants to see drug diversion in city court first
March 13, 2023 at 6:08 p.m.

Staff Reporter

Bellingham City Council members on March 13 soundly rejected the mayor’s proposal to make drug use a crime in the city, saying they wanted to see a drug diversion program in municipal court first.

Mayor Seth Fleetwood last week proposed an ordinance that would have made public drug use a misdemeanor, subject to arrest. Current state drug possession laws aren’t enforced in Bellingham because the city never adopted a 2021 state law that reduced possession from a felony to a misdemeanor.

“In recent weeks, we’ve had an increase of concerns voiced by downtown merchants and community members about the state of things in the downtown,” Fleetwood told council at a committee meeting Monday afternoon.

“There’s a lot of … impunity in the act of open drug use in downtown Bellingham, and I think we need to find a way to disrupt that activity,” Fleetwood added.

Use of fentanyl and other drugs is only getting worse in the city, Police Chief Rebecca Mertzig told the council. She said police responded to 70 overdose calls in 2022. Police have already taken 87 overdose calls so far this year, Mertzig added. 

Council members weren’t convinced that stiffer penalties for drug use were the answer to downtown’s problems — at least not without an adequate safety net in place to support people with substance use disorder.

“Those downtown businesses that are struggling, they expect us to fix this today,” council member Lisa Anderson said. “We don’t have the capacity to do that. We can’t arrest our way out of this.”

Municipal court Judge Debra Lev told council it would take six months to a year to establish a therapeutic court program that would keep drug offenders out of jail, offer treatment and then dismiss any charges that stemmed from drug use.

Fleetwood had indicated he wanted to see the enhanced drug penalties approved at Monday night’s meeting.

“I think the cart got put before the horse,” council member Dan Hammill said. “Incarcerating a person solely based on their addiction is … not humane to me.”

Council directed the mayor’s administration to work as quickly as possible to establish the therapeutic court, in partnership with Judge Lev. At Anderson’s request, council also asked administration to explore ways to help downtown businesses more immediately, possibly to include more police foot patrols.

City prosecutor Ryan Anderson, also in attendance at Monday’s committee meeting, said police are severely limited in how they can respond to public drug use. Officers can’t even tell a drug user that what they are doing is illegal, the prosecutor said.

“It’s never been enforced in the city” since 2021, he said.

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