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No charges for personal drug possession: Seattle’s bold gamble to bring ‘peace’ after the war on drugs

Seattle police officer Felix Reyes, left, and Washington Department of Corrections Officer Zachary Vaders speak to a man suspected of drug paraphernalia possession last month. (Daniel Berman for The Washington Post)

SEATTLE — Police officers sprang from a black patrol van on a recent day, surrounding two men smoking crack on a gritty downtown block. The officers asked for ID and confiscated a homemade pipe fashioned from glass and surgical hose..

Such stops have played out for decades on the front lines of the war on drugs, but this time it didn’t end with handcuffs. Instead, Seattle police officer Felix Reyes told the men, “I have someone in the van that can assist you with something.”

Mikel Kowalcyk, a recovering addict with streaks of purple in her hair, bounced out and crouched down next to the men. She had been there herself but was now working for a program that offers drug users help with counseling and housing.

“What are you thinking?” Kowalcyk asked.

The men declined any help. Such resistance is typical, but Kowalcyk would be back.

Late last year, prosecutors in King County, which encompasses Seattle, and neighboring Snohomish County became the first in the nation to stop charging people for possessing small amounts of drugs — heroin, meth and crack included — in virtually all cases.

Many people who once would have been locked up are now immediately offered help. It is a profound shift that builds on efforts launched here in recent years to divert low-level drug offenders into treatment and other programs to assist with recovery.

The approach, which is being considered elsewhere, amounts to a bold experiment during a historic drug epidemic: Can a major American city beat drug abuse by treating it as a public health crisis rather than a crime?

Seattle’s new model has been hailed by criminal justice reformers as a humane alternative to the punitive drug policies of the ’80s and ’90s they blame for exploding prison populations, devastating minority communities and doing little to curb drug abuse.

But it has also spurred controversy, swept up in an acrimonious debate in the city over how to handle a large homeless population that is, in part, fueled by addiction. Some police officers, residents and business owners fear dropping possession charges will worsen the crisis and lead to more crime as addicts seek cash for fixes.

The outcome of the trial effort could help reshape the nation’s approach to substance abuse and criminal justice. Last month, Philadelphia’s district attorney, Larry Krasner, said he was “close” to implementing a similar policy, while Boston’s recently elected prosecutor, Rachael Rollins, ran on a platform promising the same thing.

From a war on drugs to 'peace'

Dan Satterberg has spent 34 years prosecuting drug cases in King County. He also watched his younger sister, Shelley, battle a heroin addiction.

Satterberg said he didn’t think twice about locking up users as the drug war kicked off in the mid-’80s. He prosecuted the city’s first case involving a crack house. And the office went from handling roughly 400 felony drug cases a year to 4,000.

One day, he was handed a new file.

He said he recoiled in shock when he saw Shelley was a witness in a case involving an alleged heroin dealer. Satterberg recused himself but said Shelley eventually testified on behalf of the man, helping get the case dismissed.

Satterberg was angry for years, but he said his attitude toward Shelley softened as he read more and as the science of addiction developed, leading him to conclude that it was a disorder, not a moral failing.

In 2007, Satterberg was elected King County prosecuting attorney and soon began charging drug possession as a misdemeanor rather than a felony. His sister got clean and reconnected with the family.

Shelley died last year from health complications related to her addiction. Satterberg said his office was also facing a budget pinch. All of that prompted him to take a closer look at drug cases.

King County taxpayers were spending more than $3 million a year to prosecute 800 to 1,000 drug possession cases, but the system was a revolving door, Satterberg said. The same people were arrested, prosecuted and dumped back on the street while getting little help to break the cycle. Satterberg decided to end it in September.

Under the new plan, anyone caught with less than a gram of any drug will not be prosecuted, although police can lobby prosecutors to charge someone who is a danger. Recreational marijuana is legal in Washington. Satterberg said he still vigorously prosecutes drug dealers.

At the same time, there was a push to expand treatment. Satterberg calls it “peace on drugs,” as opposed to the war that preceded it.

Seattle is an outlier, but its push is part of a broader trend to undo tough drug penalties and bolster treatment. A couple dozen states have legalized or decriminalized marijuana, while at least five have reclassified drug possession from a felony to misdemeanor. Denver and Oakland recently approved the decriminalization of psychedelic mushrooms.

Advocates for change point to Portugal as a model. In 2001, it became the first nation to decriminalize drug possession, pairing the policy with more treatment. Since then, more users are getting treatment, the number of abusers has decreased and HIV infections have dropped. Critics point to problems such as an increase in overall drug use.

“If you believe it’s a disease, you should treat it like it’s diabetes or cancer,” Satterberg said of drug abuse. “We shouldn’t arrest people and put them in jail because they are sick.”

'Seattle Is Dying'

Todd Wiebke patrolled the Seattle streets many drug users call home before quitting the city police department last year in frustration. He sees the push to drop drug possession charges as well intentioned but wrong.

To illustrate why, he drove his black pickup truck one recent day to his old beat south of downtown. Wiebke earned the nickname “hobo cop” after spending three years working with the homeless in this industrial area, an experience he wrote a blog about.

Seattle has the nation’s largest homeless population behind New York and Los Angeles, and it’s highly visible. Whole blocks downtown are filled with the homeless, many struggling with mental illness or addiction.

Wiebke said Seattle has taken a hands-off approach to homelessness in what he says is a misguided attempt at compassion. The result is mess, property crime and paradoxically more suffering on the streets, he said. He thinks the new drug policy will exacerbate those problems.

Wiebke pointed to spots where children walked past piles of needles to get home, tent camps where officers had found weapons, and where a mentally disabled man was often preyed on by other homeless people.

Things reached a head for Wiebke last fall when he said a superior scolded him for impounding an RV that had trash littered around it, citing a new policy for dealing with the homeless. Wiebke resigned.

Wiebke is not alone. Anger over homelessness, drugs and property crime, which is high in the city, has reached a boiling point in recent months. The views of some residents and business owners were crystallized in a TV documentary called “Seattle Is Dying,” which has received 3.9 million views on YouTube.

“As a society, the way we are treating the weakest amongst us is to allow them to live off the side of the road,” Wiebke said. “Those conditions we have created are built up off narcotics.”

Help, not handcuffs

Stephanie Harris is a case manager for a program pioneered in Seattle called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), which aims to connect users to services at the point they would once have been arrested. She had good news.

A 47-year-old client had gotten on methadone and moved into an apartment. Harris said she planned to take the woman to Goodwill to furnish her new home.

“She’s never had a lease in her whole life,” Harris said. “It was a pretty big deal.”

Another report was not so promising. That case manager described how her client had a drug relapse, committed a crime and was now looking at a minimum 45-month sentence.

The updates to a group of case managers, police and prosecutors who meet monthly to discuss the progress of LEAD clients showed the successes and setbacks of the city’s emphasis on treatment.

LEAD, which launched in 2011, initially took clients who faced low-level drug charges. But with the city’s new policy on drug possession, most are now referred by police or community groups without an arrest. Violent offenders are generally disqualified.

The program takes an approach that is radically different from many traditional efforts. Clients are not required to abstain from drugs. Counselors don’t judge and allow clients to progress at their own pace. That could mean simply supplying a user with clean needles at first.

Initial studies of LEAD show promise. University of Washington researchers found that clients had a nearly 40 percent lower chance of being charged with a felony compared with nonparticipants over the long term and far higher rates of being housed and employed. The model has spread to 37 counties and cities.

Across town at the main courthouse, another prong of Seattle’s approach to addiction and crime plays out in its drug court. There, drug users who also are facing other charges are given help in lieu of incarceration. If they undergo intensive treatment and drug screening and appear before a judge for regular check-ins, they can have their charges dismissed.

Julian Treat, 25, is among them. Last fall, while homeless, he was arrested and accused of stealing cars to buy drugs. He faced up to 20 years in prison.

At first Treat did well in the drug court program, counselors said. Then his truck got impounded. He lost his job and spiraled into depression, spending his last $300 on crack, heroin and meth.

Christina McCullough, a fellow participant, lived near Treat in program housing. They had met on the street during a drug deal and had reconnected in drug court. She heard a thud one night.

She ran to Treat’s apartment. “The door hit him on the ground,” she said. “He was overdosing.”

McCullough grabbed naloxone, used to counteract narcotics, from her apartment and administered two doses, reviving Treat. Treat narrowly managed to stay in the program and has stayed clean since.

Now, he was standing before a cheering crowd in a courtroom, clean and employed in aviation manufacturing. McCullough hugged Treat, and a judge handed him a certificate saying his charges had been dismissed.

“I kind of just started faking it until I made it,” Treat told the courtroom.

Cases such as this provide Seattle officials hope that their approach will work.

The challenges are formidable. Overdoses rose in King County from 345 in 2016 to 414 last year, according to the medical examiner. Fentanyl is a rising problem in the city, and need outstrips services.

There is little data yet to examine the impact that Seattle’s new drug-possession policy has had on use and crime, but Satterberg promises to stick with it.

“I want to continue this experiment,” Satterberg said. “We want to create an apparatus of help and support for people instead of just punishing, punishing, punishing.”

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