Proposal Would Make Public Drug Use Illegal

Brian Coddington, Communications Director, 509.625.6740

Tuesday, March 21, 2023 at 9:33 a.m.

A new ordinance proposed by Mayor Nadine Woodward and councilmembers Jonathan Bingle and Michael Cathcart would make open drug use in public spaces illegal to keep sidewalks, alleyways, plazas, parks, parking lots, and other open spaces safe and healthy for everyone’s use.

The ordinance, called the Safe Open Spaces Act, would make use of a controlled substance in public spaces without a prescription a gross misdemeanor. The ordinance, which was introduced Monday at the City Council’s Finance and Administration Committee, could be voted on next month.

“Open drug use in our public spaces while families, visitors, workers, and others who use our public spaces is not acceptable,” Woodward said. “We need to re-establish the expectation that our sidewalks are safe and healthy for everyone.”

Recent changes to state law based on a state Supreme Court case have made prohibitions on possessing user drug quantities enforceable only after police officers refer the individual to treatment twice. The state legislature is considering a fix to the so-called “Blake decision” that would make drug possession once again arrestable as a first offense, but that legislation still must be approved by the state House and signed by the governor.

“We have to act now to preserve safe open spaces in Spokane,” Bingle said. “There is no question that open drug use is encroaching on others in our community against their will.”

Spokane is categorized as a High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Open drug use is occurring at a greater rate in the lowest income, most diverse neighborhoods, including downtown.

“The extreme power of fentanyl presents a serious danger for our children and other non-consenting users through secondhand inhalation or other forms of contact. Tranq, a newer form of the drug, is so potent that an overdose is irreversible and can lead to severe physical disfigurement, amputation, and death even with only small amounts,” Cathcart said. “Passage of the Safe Open Spaces Act is essential for protecting our community and setting a frankly bare minimum standard of conduct in our public areas, which are intended to be open and enjoyable for everyone. Our families should not have to worry about the potential risks of a user's erratic behavior or inadvertent contact with these dangerous drugs when they are using our public spaces. By prohibiting open use and requiring confiscation of these powerful substances when law enforcement makes contact, we are making it clear that community safety is our utmost priority and any behavior endangering us and our right to live in a safe community will not be tolerated.”

Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids have contributed significantly to the amount of drug use in Spokane and nationwide. The Spokane Fire Department administers Narcan daily to counteract opioid overdose. The Spokane Police Department, which responds to about one-third of all overdose calls, also regularly uses Narcan.

Woodward is part of the Spokane Alliance for Fentanyl Education Task Force and led the passage of a resolution at the U.S. Conference of Mayors seeking federal funding for fentanyl prevention efforts. Bingle and Cathcart have also been staunch advocates for protecting open public spaces as drug-free areas for the community to enjoy.

The proposed ordinance, which would be enforced citywide, aligns with the Neighborhood Quality of Life and Downtown Neighborhood viability section of the City’s Comprehensive Plan. Downtown Spokane is identified in the plan as the primary economic and cultural center of the region and provides a variety of housing, recreation, and daily service opportunities that attract and retain neighborhood residents. The plan also calls for promoting actions designed to increase pedestrian use of streets, especially downtown, thereby creating a healthy street life.