The Olympia City Council has approved creation of five drug-free zones in the downtown area.
The overlapping zones will cover most of downtown Olympia and will be marked by signs. The zones are seen as another tool for battling drug-related crimes involving heroin or methamphetamine.
The new law will enhance penalties for felony drug-dealing offenses within 1,000 feet of five sites: Hands On Children’s Museum, The Washington Center, The Olympia Center, Olympia City Hall and the Olympia Timberland Regional Library. Referred to as “civic centers,” the five sites are public properties used for recreational and cultural purposes.
Offenders could face an extra two years for dealing drugs in these zones, but will also have more incentive to seek drug treatment as part of sentencing, according to Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim.
The ordinance passed 5-1 at Tuesday’s council meeting. Councilman Jim Cooper was the lone dissenting vote, and Councilwoman Cheryl Selby was absent. Cooper said the law focuses too much on law enforcement and incarceration instead of treatment and prevention for drug offenders. He has also cited a need for more information on the ordinance’s financial impact.
The ordinance is intended to complement state law, which already establishes schools, parks and transit centers as drug-free zones. Councilman Steve Langer said the city can always review the new law’s effectiveness and determine whether it needs revision.
“We need to make a really clear statement that it’s not OK to be dealing and using drugs in our city center,” Langer said Tuesday. “We need to send a strong message.”
The drug-free zones have attracted support among several residents and business owners. Olympia resident Angela Cherry urged the council to pass the ordinance Tuesday. As the mother of a struggling addict, Cherry said she is concerned about the city turning into a “heroin mecca.”
“We have all paid a huge price for the rampant drug use,” said Cherry, noting the health hazards associated with discarded syringes in city parks and public places. “A needle prick could be just a step away.”
Olympia resident Jessica Archer helped circulate a petition that collected nearly 300 signatures in support of the drug-free zones.
“The people of Olympia want their parks and public spaces back,” Archer told the council Tuesday. “This is really just a first step, but it’s one that needs to be taken.”
The law also has its critics in the community. Jefferson Doyle, a homeless outreach worker in downtown Olympia, questioned the effectiveness of drug-free zones and urged the council to table the law for further research.
“Take time with this and make a policy that works,” Doyle told the council Tuesday.
Also on Tuesday, the council unanimously approved a six-month extension on the city’s medical marijuana moratorium. A public hearing was held before the council’s vote, but no speakers came forward.
In May 2013, the council had approved a one-year ban on new medical marijuana facilities and collective gardens. The city has 13 medical marijuana dispensaries that were allowed to stay open; the moratorium does not affect them. The medical facilities exist in a largely unregulated gray area, and the Legislature is expected to address the issue again in 2015.
Meanwhile, the state’s first legal recreational marijuana outlets are expected to open in July.
Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869