Seattle to Fight the War on Drugs in an Unusual Way

Last Updated: May 31, 2023

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Over the years there have been different methods and approaches to dealing with the war on drugs. Seattle is now looking at a progressive way to combat the war on drugs that avoids the traditional criminal penalties that many people face and instead offers them a chance to receive help.

Seattle Stops Prosecuting in Favor of Treatment

Seattle has long been seen as a hub of progressivism, and it is continuing that legacy with its new approach to the war on drugs. According to op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof, Seattle is rejecting the concept of the war on drugs altogether, at least as far as how many perceive it. Instead of relying on criminal justice measures, Seattle is viewing drug use as a public health issue. Rather than increasing criminal penalties for minor and non-violent drug offenses, Seattle is offering people the opportunity to receive drug treatment.

In 2011, the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program was created. With this program, when someone is non-violent and is arrested for violations from what are described as unmet behavioral health needs including substance use, they are sent to a case management program. Along with access to drug treatment programs, this may include transitional or permanent housing assistance. The criminal justice system isn’t part of the program, and city officials say that’s because it only makes issues worse.

To qualify for the program, participants can’t have been carrying more than three grams of drugs, and they couldn’t have any felony convictions linked to serious violent crimes. They also can’t have been suspected of exploiting minors or promoting prostitution as part of drug-dealing activities.

LEAD Program Saves Lives

The LEAD program in Seattle has proven to be an effective model. As a result, many other cities across the United States are looking at implementing similar programs. Specifically, 59 cities and towns across the country are either already offering or are planning to offer a LEAD program. According to one study from 2017, participants in the LEAD program were 58% less likely to get arrested again. Further, they were 46% more likely to have a job or receive job training.

The goal of LEAD, according to organizers, is harm reduction. The program seeks a unique view of success. For example, maybe the number of monthly visits to the emergency room is decreased. There are also big success markers that are part of the program, such as sobriety or living in a home after living on the streets.

Along with the lower rates of arrest and higher rates of employment linked to the LEAD program, there are other promising statistics and data surrounding its implementation. For example, there was a study looking at the efficacy of the program which found that participants in the LEAD group have a 60% lower chance of arrest compared to a control group that wasn’t part of LEAD. LEAD participants were 39% less likely to be charged with a felony compared to individuals in the control group.

Treating Addiction Like the Disease That It Is

The LEAD program treats addiction as a disease and a public health issue rather than a crime. That’s in line with guidance from organizations like the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as a chronic disease. The disease of addiction is characterized by drug-seeking and compulsive drug use as well as changes in the brain.

Since addiction is a chronic disease, treatment often needs to be long-term and may require repeated care. With the disease concept of addiction, treatment needs to help someone stop using drugs, remain drug-free and be productive in their family, lives, and society.

If you or someone you care about is struggling with substance use, contact The Recovery Village Ridgefield today. We provide evidence-based treatment programs and compassionate care.


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    Kim, Victoria. “Inside Seattle’s Progressive Approach to Drug Policy.” The Fix, August 28, 2019. Accessed September 30, 2019.

    Green, Sara Jean. “LEAD program for low-level drug criminals sees success.” The Seattle Times, April 8, 2015. Accessed September 30, 2019.

    National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction.” January 2019. Accessed September 30, 2019.