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Overdoses and Drug Use Continue Downtown Even as Seattle Mayor Unveils Downtown Activation Plan

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Seattle’s addiction crisis continues unabated in the wide open, even in the pouring rain, this weekend.  Drug users congregate under umbrellas near bus stops and vestibules, or simply get high on sidewalks in front of shocked parents and children.

A man lies on the sidewalk overdosing in front of a Ross retail store, his face blue.  Seattle Police rush in to save his life with several hits of Narcan as tourists watched in horror.  

These are all-too-normal occurrences on a weekend in downtown Seattle along 3rd Avenue and Pike Street, right in the middle of Pike Place Market’s tourist gateway.

The drug of choice remains fentanyl, known on the streets as “fetty” or “blues.”  Sold for as little as two dollars a pill, the drugs are smoked on sheets of foil.

Health officials say fentanyl is the primary driver behind King County’s record drug overdose deaths last year. 

To compound the crisis, fentanyl is now appearing in the Seattle region that is laced with the animal tranquilizer Xylazine, also known as “tranq.” The DEA recently issued a public safety warning about illicit drugs laced with Xylazine causing flesh-rotting sores on users, which can lead to infection so severe that amputation is necessary.

A man using drugs on the sidewalk tells me that he knows the fentanyl he uses is laced with tranq. “I’m addicted to it,” he says, so he continues using the deadly substance.

While the situation is dire, some say progress is being made and that Seattle is headed in the right direction.  

It used to be far worse, but now “the mayor is cleaning up the city,” a pedestrian tells me.

There has been an increase in police patrol of downtown with the goal of moving illicit activity off the sidewalks.  Arrests are being made for drug dealers and sellers of stolen merchandise. Some of the businesses that closed due to crime and open-air drug use have even decided to reopen.

On Monday afternoon, mayor Bruce Harrell touted some of these accomplishments under his watch. And he finally unveiled more details about the much-anticipated downtown activation plan. He also issued an executive order to address the fentanyl crisis.

But even with these hopeful signs, and possibly a change in culture, the addicts say they’re simply moving to other nearby streets and into alleyways. And it’s unclear how many of these men and women are being moved into treatment programs.

Walk a few blocks to City Hall, and you’ll see that the tents have returned on Cherry Street and many office buildings remain vacant.  

If the focus is truly on reclaiming and revitalizing greater downtown, attention should be turned to 12th and Jackson in the Chinatown International District, which is facing the same challenges.

Many in Seattle are tired of temporary fixes and now hoping and waiting for lasting solutions. 

Jonathan Choe

Journalist and Senior Fellow, Center on Wealth and Poverty
Jonathan Choe is a journalist and Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute's Center on Wealth and Poverty, covering homelessness issues for its Fix Homelessness initiative. Prior to joining Discovery, Choe spent several years as one of the lead reporters at KOMO-TV, consistently the top rated television station in Seattle. His in depth stories on crime and deep dive investigations into the homeless crisis led to measurable results in the community, including changes in public policy. Choe has more than two decades of experience in television news behind the scenes and in front of the camera for ABC, NBC, FOX, CBS, and Tribune. He has also been nominated and honored with multiple industry awards including an Emmy. Choe spent several years teaching classes on emerging media and entrepreneurship to under privileged youth in inner city Chicago. As an independent journalist, Choe also contributes regularly to the Mill Creek View and Lynnwood Times and has reported on exclusive stories in the past year for Daily Wire and The Postmillennial.