Seattle Ceases Charges For Drug Possession

Last Updated: May 31, 2023

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

In a landmark ruling, King County (Seattle) and Snohomish County, Washington, became the first counties in the country to stop charging people for possession of small amounts of illicit drugs. The counties made the unprecedented move to not charge people for possession of fewer than two grams of any drug. The decision may be the first of many similar rulings, as the attitude toward substance abuse is shifting.

The King County District Court, leaders in law enforcement and the local court systems put forth logistical reasons for this ruling. Prosecuting minor drug offenses results in:

  • Unmanageable caseloads
  • Shortage of prosecuting attorneys
  • Repeated offenses

King County Prosecutor’s Office dismissed 1500 misdemeanor cases because of severe manpower shortage. Handling minor drug offenses proved ineffective and inefficient. Diversion techniques and alternative options for people who struggle with substance abuse represent a proactive mindset.

Changes in Seattle Laws for Drug Possession

Federal, state and local laws all contribute to the mandatory procedures for law enforcement officials at every level. The Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section (NDDS) of the United States Department of Justice is responsible for laws and procedures at the federal level of our government. The Washington State Legislature provides statewide standards for controlled substances that extends to illegal drugs.

In the state of Washington, basic legal standards apply to the possession, distribution and use of controlled substances.

Violations that are always subject to prosecution include selling illegal drugs, making illegal combinations of drugs and coordinating with or intending to distribute illegal drugs. King and Snohomish County are still subject to the greater Washington state laws regarding illegal drugs. However, this ruling that possession of minor amounts of drugs will no longer be prosecuted may provide an opportunity for larger-scale legislative change.

Why isn’t Seattle Prosecuting for Drug Possession?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drug addiction is a chronic condition that leads to compulsive and destructive actions. Research has shown that continued drug use alters functions in the brain. This effect means that for many people who are addicted, drug use is an involuntary act. For people who rely on drugs every day to function, incarceration and prosecution are not the solutions for recovery.

Substance use disorder is a classification that describes people whose mental health is impaired in a way that compels them to continue addictive behaviors.

In their statements regarding the ruling to not prosecute possession of minimal amounts of drugs, King and Snohomish County officials cited the ineffectiveness of jail time and court for people who struggle with drug addiction.

The Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights states that about half of prison and jail inmates nationwide have substance abuse or dependency issues. They also explain that many people who are incarcerated for drug-related crimes do not receive substance abuse treatment and are highly likely to relapse once released. Seattle recognized that replacing law-enforcement measures with behavioral health options may be the better path for individual recovery and overall public health.

King and Snohomish County Approach to Drug Addiction and Crimes

The philosophical shift of viewing drug addiction as a mental health issue dramatically alters the way communities approach the issue. King County has a Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force that works on comprehensive strategies and prevention initiatives. Their work is largely education-oriented through published materials, information videos and community collaboration. The task force empowers local groups to implement their work on a community level.

Snohomish County has a Regional Drug and Gang Task Force. The goals of this task force specifically state that they intend to prosecute mid- to upper-level drug offenders while working with local resources and promoting safety in the community. As in King County, the language surrounding this approach is about prevention and providing resources, not incarceration and prosecution.


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    King County. “Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force.” Accessed June 20, 2019.

    National Institute on Drug Abuse. “The Science of Drug Use and Addiction: The Basics.” July 2018. Accessed June 20, 2019.

    Snohomish County. “Snohomish Regional Drug and Gang Task Force.” Accessed June 20, 2019.

    The United States Department of Justice. “Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section (NDDS).” Accessed June 20, 2019.

    Washington State Legislature. “Uniform Controlled Substances Act.” Accessed June 20, 2019.