Not long ago, my wife and I spent a week in Harlem. Not once during our frequent walks in that neighborhood or elsewhere in Manhattan did we ever see anyone injecting drugs. Coming home we got off the elevator at Westlake Station and as the door opened there was a young man on the floor shooting up. Asked if he was OK as we hoisted our bags over him, he nodded yes and gave us a wan smile.
New York Times Opinion columnist Nicholas Kristof recently opined that, “Seattle holds the key to solving the nation’s addiction crisis,” describing the approach as, “[A] partial retreat in the war on drugs coupled with a stepped-up campaign against addiction.”
There’s plenty of room to criticize the “war on drugs” as a failure. Good arguments can be made for decriminalization, if not legalization, of various drugs. There are also good arguments for treating addiction as a medical condition requiring therapeutic rather than punitive interventions. But Seattle’s model is not a “partial retreat in the war on drugs,” it simply abandons the field. Rather than a “stepped-up campaign against addiction,” Seattle enables addiction. The consequences have been devastating for the addicted, for public spaces and public safety.
Kristof points to the King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg’s refusal to prosecute drug possession in favor of diversion to social services and treatment programs as a major innovation, citing some successful outcomes. In fact, however, the practical consequence of the prosecutor’s policy is that in most cases nothing happens, at least nothing good.
Prosecutorial decriminalization of public drug use in Seattle, with City Hall’s apparent blessing, means police usually do nothing when they observe such behavior. Even if diversion is the intended goal, the police must intervene and connect the user to the program. Further, these treatment programs do not exist at anywhere near the necessary scale and are voluntary. The decriminalization message, however, has been heard loud and clear by the cops on the street. Most of the time they do not intervene, confiscate the drugs, or take the person to a diversion program.
Diversion to social services and treatment is doing something that can help some. Prosecution and the use of “drug courts” and coercive treatment can help others. But doing nothing is worse than just not helping those who desperately need it. Doing nothing hurts the public interest. And in most drug cases, Seattle is doing nothing.
Doing nothing drives many people away from public spaces and parks where drugs are openly used, while attracting drug users from other jurisdictions where there are still consequences for public drug use. Doing nothing increases the local homeless population and the need for shelter and services, because drug addiction is highly correlated with homelessness.
Doing nothing increases property crime, because drug addiction is highly correlated with theft. A recent study of Seattle’s “prolific” misdemeanants found that a substantial portion of all crime involving the sample prolific offender population involved theft to support their drug addiction. The Seattle Times reports that from 2010 to 2018 incident reports of shoplifting downtown increased 99% and trespass (often shoplifters told to stay out of the store) 133%. The problem is compounded by the well documented ineffective prosecution policies of the Seattle City Attorney and the lack of a municipal drug court or treatment resources.
Doing nothing also increases violent crime. In the Times report, downtown non-domestic aggravated assault increased 126% and street-robbery 16% during this period. Meanwhile, narcotic incident reports dropped 48%, despite the rise of the opioid epidemic during this period. Only a fraction of those not arrested were referred to a diversion program.
Drug use requires drug trafficking, and drug trafficking is connected to gun violence. In a recent Seattle Times news story, a Seattle Police Department sergeant estimated 85% of the violent crime he sees is directly or indirectly connected to drugs. In 2015, officers seized 928 firearms, 945 guns in 2016, 1,280 in 2017 and 1,408 in 2018.
Of the 50 largest cities, Seattle ranked 18th in population, but eighth in property crime in 2017. New York was first in population and 46th in property crime. New York’s homicide rate is lower than Seattle’s. Our elected officials should be asking why.
The first white settlers founded Seattle with the motto, “New York Alki” — Chinook for “By and By.” When it comes to our skyline, traffic or food maybe so, but we have a long way to go on public safety and preserving public spaces. Getting there will require us to both have a heart and use our heads. Doing nothing is a dead end.