City of Lakewood considers ordinances banning public drug use, overnight camping

Joshua Bessex/

On Monday the Lakewood City Council is expected to approve two ordinances banning the use and disposal of “dangerous drugs” in public and overnight camping on public property. Violating either ordinance would result in a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum sentence of 90 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000.

According to city documents, the council is expected to approve several amendments to the Lakewood Municipal Code that will make it unlawful for any person to intentionally use a “dangerous drug” in public or dispose of drugs or drug paraphernalia on the ground or into any body of water. A “dangerous drug” refers to any controlled substance classified as Schedule I, II, III or IV drugs, including methamphetamine, heroin and fentanyl.

The amended ordinance excludes cannabis, although cannabis use is still prohibited in public under Washington law. The ordinance would take effect 30 days after it is approved.

On March 13, the Bellingham City Council rejected a similar proposal to ban public drug use after citing a lack of resources to connect offenders with social services.

In a letter sent to the Lakewood mayor and city council on March 13, Assistant City Attorney Samantha Johnson said a legislative amendment following the 2021 Washington State Supreme Court decision State v. Blake prohibits law enforcement from arresting or citing someone for unlawful possession of a controlled substance until the offender has twice been diverted to voluntary social services.

Practical difficulties, including the lack of any regional or statewide tracking and referral system, has “essentially led to the decriminalization of drug possession,” Johnson wrote, resulted in people using and possessing illegal drugs openly in public places and exposing the public to the harm associated with the use of illicit drugs.

The negative impacts of public drug use “plagues business owners, home owners, tax payers, and future business potential for the City of Lakewood,” she wrote. “In 2022, the Lakewood Police Department received 3,324 calls for service from 100th and South Tacoma Way to Perkins and South Tacoma Way (approximately 0.2 mile distance). This is an increase from the 2,606 calls for service this same area received in 2021. That is a 27.5% increase in calls for service in a 0.2 mile radius.”

The intent of amending the ordinance “is to reduce the open use of drugs, reduce violent and property crimes, increase public safety, and allow an opportunity for court intervention and treatment,” Johnson wrote in the letter to the mayor and city council.

Under the amended ordinance, a “public place” is defined as “an area generally visible to public view,” including libraries, sidewalks, parking lots and parking garages, parks, playgrounds, restaurants, stores, gas stations and bus stops.

If the amended ordinance passes, knowingly disposing of any dangerous drug or drug paraphernalia onto the ground or into any body of water will result in a misdemeanor charge.

At the council’s study session on March 13, council members expressed support for the ordinance, saying they believed it would help law enforcement address prevalent drug use in public and connect people to addiction treatment.

“I really appreciate some of the comments we’ve received tonight about how this is a good step toward turning a bit of positive compassion for the issue. I’ll be the first to tell you, I have limited compassion for the issue ... commercial property owners and business owners — they are tired of it,” said Mayor Jason Whalen at the council’s study session on March 13. “They’re losing their businesses. They’re losing tenants. I am losing compassion. We need to get this on the docket and approve it yesterday.”

‘Occupation of public property’

The council will also be considering another ordinance to the Lakewood Municipal Code regarding the “occupation of public property,” making it unlawful to occupy and store personal property on public land overnight. The city would suspend enforcement of the ordinance against people experiencing homelessness if overnight shelter is not available, according to city documents.

The ordinance would also make it a misdemeanor to discharge garbage, refuse or waste on public property, build a structure or shelter, dig, park or drive a vehicle in a public area abutting protected waters in the city of Lakewood.

In a letter sent to the mayor and city council members on March 13, City Attorney Heidi Ann Wachter wrote that the environmental impact of illegal camping “can be significant.” Wachter said without infrastructure like restrooms and refuse containers, the collective impact of camping on public land “can be severe” and negatively impact the watershed, habitat for endangered species and Tribal fishing rights.

Under the City of Lakewood’s Municipal Code, and related court rulings, enforcement of this ordinance would require confirmation that the city has available options for shelter, Wachter wrote.

“If available overnight shelter is available, the shelter space must be offered to the person(s) experiencing homelessness, along with other available human services. Only if the shelter space is refused can the provisions of Lakewood Municipal Code 9.15.020 and 9.15.025 be enforced against persons experiencing homelessness,” according to the draft ordinance.

The purpose of the ordinance is to “promote public health, safety and welfare by preserving for public use public spaces,” according to city documents. “Public property” is defined as all parks, streets, rights-of-way, sidewalks and any other property in which a public entity has an interest.

The first offense for violating the ordinance will result in a fine of no more than $1,000, imprisonment that will not exceed 90 days, or both. The second offense within a five-year period will result in the same punishment. $100 of the fine and one day of imprisonment will not be suspended or deferred.

The third or subsequent offense for violating the ordinance within five years will result in a fine of no more than $1,000, imprisonment that will not exceed 90 days, or both. $500 of the fine and five days of imprisonment shall not be suspended or deferred, according to city documents.

If approved Monday, the ordinance would go into effect 30 days later.

At the study session on March 13, council members discussed logistics about police enforcement and the number of no-barrier shelter beds available in Pierce County.

“I think we’re at the point where we need to do something as opposed to nothing,” Whalen said. “At most if we felt we needed to have some education and protocol in place [for] the officers on shift or at the end of shift to figure out what beds are available that evening in order to refer folks. You could look at Section 12 and extend the effective date of 30 days to 45 or 60 if the department felt they needed more time for implementation, but I think passing the ordinance is something that is topical and ready.”