Bellingham mayor proposes ban on open drug use, creation of therapeutic court

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Bellingham mayor proposes ban on open drug use

On Monday, Bellingham mayor Seth Fleetwood proposed a measure to ban drug use in public places. He said city leaders saw an increase in complaints of drug use and erratic behavior from people who live, work and visit downtown.

More than 2,400 Washingtonians died from an overdose in 2022, according to QuoteWizard, an insurance comparison research tool. The national study showed the amount of overdoses in the state increased almost 20% from the year 2021. The study said synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, were the nation’s second-highest cause of overdose deaths.

Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood on Monday introduced a proposal to city council to ban drug use in public places. Fleetwood said open drug use and erratic behaviors were growing problems in the city, especially downtown. He said city leaders saw an increase in complaints from people who live, work and visit downtown.

"[It's] the increase in use, the discomfort that that’s providing a lot of community members, and the fact that it’s making them reluctant to use our downtown," said Fleetwood.

The mayor said $1 million was invested downtown to hire security, clean up graffiti and sanitation services. Despite those efforts, however, open drug use remained an issue in the heart of the city.

"There’s a lot of complacency and impunity in the act of open drug use in downtown Bellingham. And I think we need to find a way to disrupt that activity," said Fleetwood.

Fleetwood proposed the ban on drug use in public places, which would make it a misdemeanor. This ordinance would be similar to the state’s laws on drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana in public. 

In tandem with the ban, the mayor said the proposal would also establish a new community court in collaboration with Bellingham Municipal Court. Fleetwood said the goal would be to prioritize rehabilitation over punishment for those who need help with their addictions and mental health.

"We’re not suggesting this is a cure-all. This is another tool in the tool kit to address open use," said Fleetwood.

City Council could vote on the proposal as early as Monday evening. If approved, the ordinance would start in April.

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"We remain committed to making progress toward helping everyone affected by downtown public health and safety concerns," said Fleetwood. "Everyone who works, lives and enjoys our downtown deserves clean, welcoming experiences. We also want to connect people who have substance abuse, behavioral health and other needs with services and treatments to help them. We are working to achieve these goals and continue to realize our vision for a safe, healthy downtown."