Inside Seattle's Progressive Approach To Drug Policy

Inside Seattle's Progressive Approach To Drug Policy

Instead of ramping up criminal penalties for non-violent, minor drug offenses, Seattle is providing a chance to get help.

Seattle is a beacon of progressive drug policy—a model for helping, not criminalizing, drug use.

According to a New York Times op-ed by columnist Nicholas Kristof, the city has rejected the age-old “war on drugs” and has instead taken a different approach—one that relies “less on the criminal justice toolbox to deal with hard drugs and more on the public health toolbox.”

Instead of ramping up criminal penalties for non-violent, minor drug offenses, Seattle is providing a chance to get help.

The Birth Of LEAD 

In 2011, the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program was created in the city.

Under the program, non-violent people arrested for “law violations driven by unmet behavioral health needs”—e.g. drugs—are diverted to a “trauma-informed intensive case-management program” that may include transitional or permanent housing or treatment, according to the LEAD website. This way, they bypass the criminal justice system, which is often said to only exacerbate their issues.

“People are hurting inside. That’s why they’re using in the first place,” said Chian Jennings, a 45-year-old woman with a history of drug abuse who was referred to LEAD.

She told Kristof, “It was probably the best thing that happened to me. It saved my life.”

Encouraged by its success, 59 municipalities across the U.S. also offer, or will offer, the LEAD program.

According to a 2017 study, LEAD participants were 58% less likely to be arrested again and 46% more likely to have a job or get job training.

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Drug Prosecutions

Last September, King County (in which Seattle resides) stopped prosecuting cases involving possession of less than one gram of drugs including heroin and cocaine.

Dan Satterberg, the prosecuting attorney for King County, shared with Kristof that while some may not be happy with the humane treatment of people who use drugs, it’s better than the alternative: locking up people who are already struggling.

Satterberg is guilty of perpetuating this drug war strategy himself—but as he told Kristof, he would see firsthand why that strategy was not working.

His younger sister, Shelley Kay Satterberg, passed away last year of a urinary tract infection. She was 51. Her cause of death was the culmination of years of drug and alcohol abuse, Satterberg said.

Kristof seems to have a lot of faith in the direction Seattle is going in, in terms of drug policy. “Seattle is undertaking what feels like the beginning of a historic course correction, with other cities discussing how to follow,” Kristof writes.

He added, “If the experiment in Seattle succeeds, we’ll have a chance to rescue America from our own failed policies.”

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