Federal Way tees up to ban drug possession

Failure of the state Legislature to agree on a solution means cities may pass their own laws.

The Federal Way City Council voted yes on a city ordinance to outlaw drug possession in Federal Way at the May 2 council meeting.

The council’s vote was unanimous, but this is only a first reading; the bill will now go to the May 16 council meeting for potential adoption.

The law would kick in July 1, the same day that a temporary state law concerning drug possession expires.

The cost of prosecuting more people for drug crimes can be handled internally “to a point,” according to the city attorney, but may increase demand to the point that another prosecutor is required for the city.

Mayor Jim Ferrell was unable to attend the meeting due to illness, so Council President Linda Kochmar served as acting mayor. Councilmember Jack Dovey was excused from the meeting, and Councilmember Erica Norton joined remotely.

City drug laws

With no action on either the state or local level, simple possession of controlled substances will effectively be decriminalized after that point. How did we get here?

The State Supreme Court in 2021 found the state law against simple possession of drugs was unconstitutional, because as written, the law didn’t require someone to know they had an illegal drug — only that the drug was present.

State lawmakers instead passed a temporary stopgap solution — which expires July 1 — that requires police to offer diversion services two times to those with drugs before a person could be charged.

But the failure of the state Legislature this year to agree on a new law means that, unless legislators can solve the issue in an emergency special session, the stopgap law will expire this summer, leaving no state law concerning the simple possession of controlled substances like fentanyl or meth.

Several cities, including Federal Way, are now drafting their own laws against drug possession or use. King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn has introduced a similar ordinance that would make public drug use a misdemeanor in King County.

All this means that come the summer, Washington’s rules on drugs could turn into a patchwork of municipal and county laws and treatment systems. The Legislature could preempt local ordinances if it takes up drug laws again in the future.

Federal Way’s code amendment is similar to an ordinance it passed in 2021. It would make knowing possession of controlled substances a gross misdemeanor, though cannabis would remain legal. Federal Way police and city prosecutors would be tasked with enforcing the law on the street and in the courts.

The code is nearly identical to the original state law, city staff said; just with the word “knowingly” added before the word “possess.”

If passed, the law would kick in July 1, at the same time the temporary state law expires.

The improper use of controlled substances can cause injury or death, exacerbate mental health problems, cause addiction and is correlated with increased criminal behavior, according to the text of the city’s proposed ordinance.

Ferrell, in a letter to the council read by Council President Kochmar, said he hopes the Legislature will reconvene to iron out a state solution to the law.

“In the meantime … we cannot wait and hope our local community stays safe,” Ferrell wrote, calling on the council to pass the city ordinance with no delay.

Councilmember Susan Honda said the council should call on Federal Way’s three state legislators to take action on drug laws, and get more information on funding for treatment in the city.

“I think it’s great we’re taking immediate action on this,” Councilmember Jack Walsh said.

Alexander M, a Federal Way resident, said during public comment that he agrees he’d like to see less drug addiction and crime in the city.

“However, I don’t feel like this ordinance does that very well,” he said. “I feel like rather than going to the root of the issue, rather than battling addiction, it just continues the old … revolving door model, where people go in prison, come out and go back in.”

He said a better solution would involve addressing the root of addiction, such as the addiction rehabilitation models used in Portugal.

Federal Way resident Ken Blevins said police involvement will connect people to services. He gave an example of a man who was homeless for years in the woods, who was saved by the time he spent in jail and with family after getting out.

Resident Anna Patrick also asked the council to consider a drug addiction treatment model proposed by councilmember Norton.

Sister Cities trip

City leaders also raved about the hospitality from their sister city partners during the council meeting.

From April 21-29, city leaders visited Donghae, South Korea, and Hachinohe, Japan, which are two of Federal Way’s sister cities. The mayor and council members Lydia Assefa-Dawson, Hoang Tran and Walsh attended, along with several members of city staff, former Mayor Mike Park, Federal Way Chamber of Commerce President Becca Martin and members of the Federal Way Korean American Association.

In his letter to the council, Ferrell called the trip a “mutually beneficial” success and learning experience. The Federal Way delegation received a round of applause from staff when visiting Donghae’s city hall, the mayor reported — “a memorable moment.”

“I think great things will come out of it,” Walsh said, “culturally but also economically. … We were warmly welcomed. I cannot believe the welcome we received. It was incredible, and an incredibly successful trip.”

Council member Hoang Tran was struck by the cleanliness of the sister cities — and the cultural expectation that people there take responsibility for throwing away their trash properly. The cities are not immune to homelessness, Assefa-Dawson shared, though they had their own approaches to the issue.

The trips are a chance to create inter-continental business connections and cultural exchange, city leaders said. It’s been about two decades since the city sent people to visit.

Also on May 2, the council…

• Was introduced to the city’s new Communications Officer, David Solano.

• Proclaimed May 2023 as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and Older American’s [sic] Month. Ferrell also proclaimed May as Neurofibromatosis Awareness Month. The council also proclaimed May 14 through 20 as Police Week. Finally, the council honored April 30 to May 6 as National Professional Municipal Clerk Week and gave city clerk Stephanie Courtney flowers for her work.