Seattle mayor signs executive order giving guidance on city's new public drug use law

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell officially signed a new ordinance on public drug use on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after the city council approved the contentious bill. 

The law begins in 30 days, allowing the city attorney’s office to prosecute cases of open drug use and possession.

On Sept. 28, Harrell signed an executive order offering guidance to the police department on how to implement the city's new drug enforcement law. 

The executive order says when Seattle Police officers are considering making an arrest for drug possession or public drug use, they will first determine whether the person poses a "threat of harm to others."  

The executive order goes on to say that officers should take into consideration a number of factors when making that decision, such as:

  • Whether the person is near people, businesses, what kind of drug they are on... and their physical condition.
  • If the person does not appear to be a threat, then officers should make a "reasonable attempt" to connect the person with diversion, outreach or other alternatives to arrest.

"It gives our officers some clarity that they need. I talked to our officers and I asked them a simple question—if you see someone lying down and nodding off from drug intake, drug use as an example, what should you do? They can ask me, well mayor, what would you like us to do? We know we want to help people, we know they want treatment," said Harrell.

Most communities in Washington conformed to new state laws on controlled substances, signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in May 2023. The state laws make public drug use and possession a gross misdemeanor, allowing city attorneys to prosecute the drug charges. 

City Attorney Ann Davison proposed a bill for Seattle to conform to the state law and update the municipal code. However, the Seattle City Council rejected the bill during a vote in June.


After the council rejected adopting the state’s law, Mayor Bruce Harrell formed a task force to create a new proposal for the city. It still included ideas from the state and added new intervention and recovery services. The mayor’s proposal also offered guidance for Seattle police officers.

The mayor’s office presented the bill to the council in July. The Public Safety and Human Services Committee made several amendments to Harrell’s proposal. The full city council approved the latest version of the ordinance in a 6-3 vote on Tuesday.

Treatment and diversion options were emphasized in the ordinance. Harrell and Davison said those were the preferred approaches to addressing the drug crisis in Seattle. The guidance also included in the ordinance states arrests should only happen when there is a threat to the community and/or a threat to harm other people. 

Now that this new law updates Seattle’s municipal code, it allows the city attorney’s office the authority to prosecute cases as gross misdemeanors.

"We need to be able to have our public spaces safe and accessible for everybody. We need to be able to get people into treatment. And if there are corresponding crimes associated with that, we need to be able to prosecute. And to make sure prosecute has continuous responses, many of which can be diversion as well," said Davison. 

Not everyone supported the new rules. Councilmembers Tammy Morales, Teresa Mosqueda and Kshama Sawant were the three votes against the ordinance. The bill also received disapproval from some members of the public worried it could launch another war on drugs.

"How dare they say that. How dare they say that. This is not the war on drugs. If anything, this is the war for health, for helping people. They elected a mayor, and I think we have city leaders in place that understand compassion," said Harrell. "But we acknowledge that we do have obligations to keep our streets safe even for impacted communities and even for people that are trying to shop and live downtown."

In July 2023, Harrell announced $27 million in investments for overdose treatment services. 

The mayor said the city would conduct extensive data collection when the new law is in effect.  

"We’re going to open up the data, we’ll see how many people we arrest, how many people we treat, how many people we divert and we make adjustments based on the data. And we’re going to be an open and transparent city in that regard," said Harrell.