New Bellingham drug use law looks to rely on diversion program with high barrier to entry / Noisy Waters Northwest

Click the graphic to access video and meeting materials for the 4/10/23 Bellingham City Council Public Health, Safety and Justice Committee

April 14, 2023 Dena Jensen

I’ll try to give a rough overview of the Bellingham City Council Members’ discussion on Monday, April 10, 2023 in their Public Health, Safety, and Justice Committee meeting about potentially proceeding forward to approve their ordinance to make public use of controlled substances a crime. (I haven’t gotten a chance yet to listen to the brief review of community courts which was the second item on their agenda).

Council Members went on to pass the ordinance at their evening regular City Council meeting by a vote of 5-2, Council Members Martens and Lilliquist opposed.

The word crime was definitely used that day to refer to the use of drugs in public by Bellingham Police Chief Mertzig, even though the Mayor had, in a previous meeting, tried to maintain the ordinance was not seeking to criminalize drug use.

Some of the discussion revolved around Council Members thinking that community members have the wrong idea about what they are trying to do and that if they just wrote more down about how they want to use diversion services in the ordinance that it would help everyone understand their intent isn’t to punish.

They displayed no awareness in their conversations that as legal action is pursued against folks for public use of drugs, punishment will occur to many people – regardless of their intent – when they are not actively pursuing promptly providing community members with things like emergency shelter, rental protections, housing, and ample mental and behavioral health services.

Other than Council President Lilliquist telling the Whatcom County Health Department Director (who was present) that she should let them know if some additional funding from the City of Bellingham would help them expand Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) capacity so they could try to budget for that, no Council Members actually pointed to needed additional services and explored how they would  create/expand/fill gaps in these services. 

Not only that, but regarding the State legislation that City Council Members said our local State legislators they had talked to were confident would pass, which would outlaw possession of controlled substances this summer, no City Council Members indicated they were taking action to call for funding for services through that legislation which has not yet been finalized. The Mayor simply wondered  if they might get some funding or they might not. 

When Council Member Anderson was repeating the oft-repeated assertion that some people will not take services, she talked about herself interacting with folks needing services and brought up the example of a person refusing a bed at a crisis facility because a partner could not also be there. The Council Member didn’t suggest improving services so that that barrier to receiving help does not remain, she instead used it as proof that some people make the so-called choice to not get the help they need.

As the meeting went on, Council Member Williams finally at least got around to asking about the item that was actually on the agenda, which was how the ordinance would be enforced, and there were a few interesting items in the response from Bellingham Police Chief Mertzig. She indicated that she had been in contact with folks in Marysville, which is a place that has had such an ordinance against public drug use in place since December. 

Chief Mertzig said that since that time there have been around 70 arrests. She said she asked if the Marysville community has seen some improvement and was told that it had. She did not say who saw the improvement and what form that improvement took and no Council Members asked her to explain any further. 

While the Chief expressed a lot of confidence that verbal warnings would be helpful and that this option along with the cite and release option (i.e. issue a citation that would be sent to the prosecutor to decide if they want to pursue action against the individual) would successfully address most of the individuals using drugs publicly. 

This does not seem to jive with the information that Marysville has actually arrested 70 people since December, which is a more severe response than the two Chief Mertzig was encouraging Council Members would likely be pursued. And it does not jive with all the complaints law enforcement officers have been making about how referrals for services has not been working. 

As time wore on, Council Members seemed to fret more about the discussion running over time than they had about increasing services. Near the end, though, something important was revealed by Health Department Director Lautenbach, who noted that the officials present had been focusing almost exclusively on LEAD being the major conduit to anyone cited and released by the ordinance getting services. 

The Director emphasized that even with potential to help serve 10 to 30 more people than their current 110 case load, that there is a “high barrier to entry” for the LEAD program. This echoed remarks she had made in a meeting of the Whatcom County Justice Project Stakeholder Advisory Committee meeting. And there are Whatcom County reports on drug court that add credence that this type of obstacle exists, showing a good percentage of folks who are referred to drug court don’t get accepted. 

As Council Members continue to falsely maintain that failing to pass the law against drug use will mean they are not doing or cannot do anything about it, what they continue to not do is take many actions community members are calling for to address and prevent trauma and crisis in their community.