Renton City Council considers ordinance to criminalize public drug use, possession

Any violation would be a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine.

The Renton City Council is considering an ordinance that would criminalize public use and possession of “dangerous drugs,” in the wake of the Washington Supreme Court’s State v. Blake decision, which deemed Washington State’s law criminalizing possession of controlled substances as an unconstitutional violation of due process.

The consideration comes following the close of the 2023 legislative session, which many expected would produce a policy solution to the void left by the State v. Blake decision. Many local leaders and residents have lamented what some consider a failure of the legislature to pass a policy that punishes public drug use and possession.

The proposed ordinance makes it unlawful for any person to knowingly use any dangerous drug or drug paraphernalia in a place or manner in which such use is viewable from a public place. It also would make it unlawful to dump or deposit dangerous drugs or drug paraphernalia onto the ground, into any body of water, including the municipal water supply or sewer system, or in any public place that is not “specifically designated and designed for the safe deposit or storage of the item.”

The ordinance defines “dangerous drugs” as “any controlled substance, excluding cannabis, or controlled substance analog,” any drug “that is falsely labeled so as to appear to have been legitimately manufactured or distributed, or to mislead as to the actual contents or nature of the substance,” or any drug that requires a prescription that a person does not have.

The ordinance, as currently written, stipulates any violation would be a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine. However, it would also allow the use of community court, diversion or therapeutic programs designed to provide drug offenders an opportunity to seek needed addiction treatment.

“Regardless of the availability of formal diversion programs, police officers, prosecutors, and judges are encouraged to exercise discretion to offer leniency in sentencing and/or diversion from conviction of charges … for those who successfully complete available addiction treatment or other services that are deemed helpful to avoiding continued violations,” according to the ordinance.

During the May 15 Renton City Council meeting, the council approved the ordinance for its second reading during the next council meeting, where it will be voted on for approval by the council.