Bus and train operators say so many people are smoking drugs on Seattle-area transit that the fumes, and volatile behavior, create a hazardous work environment that discourages ridership.
King County Metro Transit workers filed 44 security incident reports regarding drug use in 2019, then 73 in 2020 and an unprecedented 398 reports in 2021, by Metro’s count. The database reflects both a real increase and more reporting, officials say.
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587, representing 4,305 active members, says stronger enforcement is needed, including more police and security guards, with greater authority to remove people. Besides toxic smoke, union officials said crews who maintain transit stops have been punched, spat upon and threatened. Many incidents don’t show up in official reports, union leaders say.
Narcotics smoking aboard transit took hold last summer, and now surpasses needles and marijuana in driver complaints. Since then, at least six operators asked to stop driving midshift, and 14 specifically mentioned feeling headaches, dizziness or irritated breathing.
Typically, users will flick a lighter beneath a piece of aluminum foil, which heats the fentanyl, meth, heroin or mixture on top, where the smoke is sucked through a straw. Air circulation systems carry the haze forward, and some transit vehicles don’t have windows that open.
“It smells like burnt peanut butter, mixed with brake fluid,” said King County Metro Transit operator Erik Christensen, who reported six incidents since October and collects field dispatches from fellow drivers.
The union endorsed Bruce Harrell for mayor, who ran on a theme of law and order, and has asked state lawmakers for help.
“We’re after the criminal activity, the smoking drugs, the assaults, the deterioration of transit,” said Local 587 Vice President Cory Rigtrup. “The solution is to restore transit, make it welcoming, bring back passengers.”
The stakes for the region’s transportation system are greater here than other cities. Seattle transit ridership rose about 50% in the 2010s, by far the highest U.S. rate, to carry 750,000 daily passengers pre-pandemic, and 46% of central-city commuters. Residents pay the nation’s highest transit taxes, to agencies that spend roughly $1,200 yearly per capita. Ridership and fare income dropped more than half in the pandemic.
Metro faces a chicken-and-egg situation, Rigtrup said, where a post-pandemic return of more commuters would help deter drug users.
Local 587 is expected to consolidate workers’ reports into a complaint with the state Department of Labor & Industries alleging workplace hazards, said L&I spokesperson Dina Lorraine.
Metro General Manager Terry White agrees smoking drugs on transit is a greater problem lately.
“Absolutely, we are a microcosm of what’s happening regionally and nationally,” White said.
Metro plans to release a new Safety, Security and Fare Enforcement Initiative this week, developed using surveys and comments from 8,000 people. White hopes to improve conduct on transit but also show compassion, especially to riders who lack shelter.
“We should not be coming down on a totally punitive side,” White said. “We should figure out how we serve community. Hopefully we’ll be putting some things in place, where you’ll see more police on a coach.” White also anticipates new outreach and alternatives for homeless passengers, something he considers a mostly different issue from the smoked-narcotics trend.
Drug use in Denver caused ATU Local 1001 there to declare Denver Union Station “a lawless hellhole” in December. A television newscast aired a worker’s video of defiant users. Police made arrests, and the transit agency closed restrooms after finding traces of fentanyl.
The loitering soon returned, said Local 1001 President Lance Longenbohn. Managers granted one train operator a medical leave this month, since drug smoke reaching her control cab triggered asthma, he said.
“People are smoking it on the buses and trains, in the station. We’re trying to bring back riders. People get on our vehicles and our stations and that’s what they see. It’s not a very attractive transit experience,” Longenbohn said.
De-escalation team proposed
On paper, merely eating a bag of potato chips violates Metro rules of rider conduct. In reality, King County shied away from enforcement activity, to reduce COVID-19 contagion, and in response to the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd that sparked racial justice protests. In Seattle, late 2010s data showed disproportionate punishment of Black passengers for fare evasion, and zero public benefits from frequently ticketing homeless riders. Politicians often want to avoid enforcement tactics that might provoke confrontations.
King County suspended fare enforcement in 2020. Sound Transit light rail, also operated by Metro, converted from military-clad inspectors to educational “fare ambassadors” who contact only 2% of riders.
However, Metro is increasing its previous 30 security officers to a total of 70 by summer, training a few each week, said Neil Crosier, security superintendent. County Executive Dow Constantine will announce a new fare enforcement policy this month, an aide said.
The unarmed Securitas guards aren’t legally authorized to remove people for misconduct, except imminent safety risk to passengers or guards, Crosier said. They mainly help customers with directions, how to pay, and where to find free Metro-supplied masks, he said.
Fare inspectors are legally empowered to evict nonpayers, if county officials reinstitute fare enforcement. Fare enforcement personnel, both here and nationally, are considered by transit agencies to be a front line of surveillance to deter or report misconduct.
Seattle police officers don’t patrol county transit vehicles but will react to serious assaults. Drug use anywhere, including sidewalks and bus stops downtown, is a “lower priority than violent crime, and we spend a lot of our time right now responding to violent crime,’ said Detective Patrick Michaud.
Christensen says, “We just want them off the bus. Just get them off the bus, so we can drive.”
Washington state Rep. Jamila Taylor, D-Federal Way, said she will request $500,000 in state funds to employ outreach staff she calls “de-escalators,” on the A Line serving International Boulevard South. They would have expertise in addiction, mental health or housing, under contract with community organizations, modeled on the CAHOOTS crisis intervention team in Eugene, Oregon.
“If a person needs services, or needs to be removed from the bus, they can handle it, rather than the bus driver. The bus driver can focus on getting the riders safely to and from,” Taylor said. Police support would be needed, but not as the first option, she said.
Plumes on Aurora
During a routine Friday evening commute, a group piled into the back of a half-full E Line bus, leaving Third Avenue and Pike Street. Someone lit their foil just beyond Aurora Bridge. A fidgety man shuffled down the aisle screaming, “I just want to love and protect you! I don’t want them to hurt me!” and was let out near Green Lake.
Another metallic-tinged plume pushed forward, where a grumbling passenger opened the window. When the bus reached Shoreline, a third and thicker cloud billowed forth. Wisps swirled around a young man who paused from nonstop rapping. The operator stopped the bus, walked back, told him to turn off his audio player. He complied. “Have a good night!” the driver wished everybody stepping off, drugged or sober.
After the bus returned downtown, around 8:20 p.m., breezes of smoke from the sidewalks around busy Pine Street drifted north toward passengers waiting at the Third and Virginia transfer stop.
Incident reports tell more stories.
Aug. 19: “Continued drug use and filling the cabin with secondhand smoke causing myself to get a migraine and slight nausea. Pulled bus into the zone 152nd and Aurora. Opened all doors and informed the riders I am unable to continue on route due to illness.”
Nov. 7: “I noticed a burning peanut butter like smell. I suspected that somebody was smoking drugs (other than marijuana or tobacco) on the train. Upon arrival at University of Washington Station, I looked out of the door window in the cab to see a passenger in the seat behind my cab smoking pills off of aluminum foil.”
Nov. 25: A man is arrested after reportedly smoking drugs from a foil, then hitting another bus passenger on the head and back with a taped broom handle.
Nov. 27: A man threw rocks that shattered bus windows in Ballard, after an operator told him to leave for smoking drugs.
Bus routes can be alluring places to smoke, Christensen said. “It’s warm, it’s out of the environment, it’s easy. The wind doesn’t blow the flame out.”
Local 587 President Ken Price portrayed teleworking Metro executives and politicians as oblivious to front-line conditions.
“Like cyber bullies they sit behind their computers and discipline you for not de-escalating predators, drug addicted people or thugs. Things they would never accept in their own workspace,” he wrote in a monthly newsletter.
White replied that he understands union members’ frustration. The white-collar staff are following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance by teleworking, he said. A lifelong Metro customer and employee, White said he still rides buses and trains daily between South King County and Pioneer Square, where he’s noticed used foils and odors, but not witnessed drugs ignited.
County Councilmember Rod Dembowski, chair of the Transportation, Economy and Environment Committee, said he’s scheduled a Tuesday morning hearing on “COVID impacts.” Union representatives will speak.
Dembowski emphasized, “Management makes the operational decisions, and many of the policy calls as well.”
Sound Transit has strung yellow plastic chains to block the seats near control cabs of its light-rail trains, following incidents of operators being overcome by toxic smoke, said spokesperson John Gallagher. He said Suraj Shetty, the new operations director, took a night ride and found “pretty disgusting stuff that’s happening on the trains.”
Previously, CEO Peter Rogoff warned the transit board about biohazards and vandalism after ridership imploded in 2020. At the next transit board meeting Feb. 24, they’ll hear about the smoked drugs phenomenon, too.