Bellevue City Council adopt ordinance allowing enforcement of new drug law

After the Blake Fix (SB 5536) bill was passed in last month’s special session, jurisdictions across Washington have been looking at the legislation and assessing how adoption would impact their city. Controversy struck the Seattle City Council after they narrowly voted down a proposal to adopt the law in city code. In contrast, the Bellevue City Council unanimously approved a similar ordinance on Monday. 

Let’s take a deeper look. 

The Deal with Blake:

The 2021 State v. Blake decision, which struck down the state’s criminal statute for drug possession, was met with a slew of corrective actions from the legislature, most notably ESB 5476. However, intended as a temporary fix, the changes enacted due to ESB 5476 would have expired on July 1, prompting a new piece of legislation — SB 5536 — to create some longer-lasting solutions to the state’s drug crisis. 

After being jolted around the legislature during this past session, the bill was finally passed during a May 16 special session called by Gov. Inslee. Check out the bill’s history here.

Why it Matters to Bellevue:

Upon passage during the special session, City of Bellevue staff joined the throng of cities investigating how the state bill could impact local law enforcement practices. At the June 26 City Council meeting, City Attorney Kathy Gerla and Bellevue Police Chief Wendell Shirley assured the council that the bill will have “marginal implications” on current policing practices in Bellevue, but rather would allow the City to prosecute crimes that happen in our jurisdiction. 

Specifically, the City Attorney’s office can file charges if there is a violation of city code, so in-step with the Blake Fix bill, the City chose to update and recodify certain drug-related crimes to avoid having cases bumped to the resource-depleted King County Prosecutor's Office. 

How City Council Responded:

Lauded as a “straight forward,” “housekeeping,” decision, the Bellevue City Council unanimously made moves to allow city law enforcement and prosecutors to effectively implement the state’s response to Blake. As per the bill, knowing use of a controlled or counterfeit substance in a public place will now be enforceable as a state crime, and the 3-Strike approach will be left to officers’ discretion. 

“We are on track to be well more than 20% higher [in overdose deaths] than last year … That is not moving us in the right direction, and I think we owe it to people who have substance abuse disorder to intervene and help them,” said Councilmember Jennifer Roberston. “And if that takes prosecution, that is one of the ways to do it.” 

Councilmembers Zahn and Stokes also highlighted the fact that the City has a suite of diversion tactics and treatment programs available as an alternative to booking those who need help, and is glad that BPD will use this new framework while maintaining an empathetic approach to the drug crisis. 

“This whole idea only works for me if treatment is truly available for people,” said Mayor Lynne Robinson. “So as an aside, and I know this has nothing to do with tonight, I would like to ask our staff to monitor that we have the funding necessary for these treatment programs.” 

City Manager Brad Miyake said that he and staff will keep an eye on their funding, and if it becomes a budget issue, they will bring it back to council for discussion. 

The Bellevue Chamber applauded the swift and unanimous action by city electeds. Chamber President and CEO Joe Fain stated, “Treatment must be the priority, but the past few years of experimentation are clear: A hands-off approach to drug use is killing people at an unprecedented rate.” 

“Bellevue once again showed that a diverse group of city leaders can come together to help those in need while protecting public safety.” 

What this Means:

As of August 14, Bellevue Police will no longer be required to refer someone to substance use disorder treatment twice before prosecution, and the following new crimes were created: Knowing use of controlled/counterfeit substances in a public place; Knowing use of Legend drugs without a prescription in a public place. 

While no longer required to, BPD will keep using its current referral system, but is no longer contingent on the breaking of simultaneous laws. Check out the memo from the City of Bellevue here, and view the PowerPoint presentation here.