SEATTLE — On gritty streets where heroin, fentanyl and meth stride like Death Eaters, where for decades both drugs and the war on drugs have wrecked lives, the city of Seattle is pioneering a bold approach to narcotics that should be a model for America.
Anyone caught here with a small amount of drugs — even heroin — isn’t typically prosecuted. Instead, that person is steered toward social services to get help.
This model is becoming the consensus preference among public health experts in the U.S. and abroad. Still, it shocks many Americans to see no criminal penalty for using drugs illegally, so it takes courage and vision to adopt this approach: a partial retreat in the war on drugs coupled with a stepped-up campaign against addiction.
The war on drugs has been one of America’s most grievous mistakes, resulting in as many citizens with arrest records as with college diplomas. At last count, an American was arrested for drug possession every 25 seconds, yet the mass incarceration this leads to has not turned the tide on narcotics.
The number of opioid users has surged, and more Americans now die each year from overdoses than perished in the Vietnam, Afghan and Iraq wars combined. And that doesn’t account for the way drug addiction has ripped apart families and stunted children’s futures. More than two million children in America live with a parent suffering from an illicit-drug dependency.
At the age of 14, Shelley ran away from home because her parents wouldn’t let her go to a concert on a school night. It was a rebellion that proved devastating. She was away for several months, was gang-raped by two men, was introduced to hard drugs and began to self-medicate with those drugs to deal with the trauma of rape.
As Dan Satterberg rose through the ranks of prosecutors, Shelley Satterberg wrestled with addiction. She was never arrested or jailed (middle-class drug users often avoid police attention, which focuses on marginalized people who use or sell in public).
Dan told me that he was angry at Shelley — angry that she had made terrible choices, angry that she had hurt their parents. But over time he also concluded that his own approach of prosecuting drug users accomplished little, except that it isolated them from the family and friends who offered the best support system to escape addiction.
In 2015, Dan took Shelley to Navos, a nonprofit that provides mental health and addiction services, and she was able to stop using street drugs and gradually put her life back in order. Dan saw that treatment made a huge difference in Shelley’s life and became a believer.
Yet it wasn’t enough. Shelley died of a urinary tract infection last year at age 51, a consequence of previous drug and alcohol abuse.
“It gave me some insight about what works better than jail,” Dan Satterberg told me. “What Shelley needed was not a jail cell and not a judge wagging a finger at her, but she needed some support.”