Olympia Council weighs impact of drug-free zones downtown

In an effort to reduce drug-related crimes involving heroin and methamphetamine, the Olympia City Council approved the first reading of an ordinance Tuesday to establish drug-free zones at five “civic centers” in the downtown area.

The new law enhances penalties for felony drug offenses — specifically drug dealing — within 1,000 feet of the civic centers, and would prohibit chronic offenders from returning to these zones.

The five designated civic centers are the Hands On Children’s Museum, The Washington Center, The Olympia Center, Olympia City Hall and the Olympia Timberland Regional Library. Civic centers are defined as a publicly owned or publicly operated property that’s used for recreation, education or cultural activities, according to the ordinance. These drug-free zones will be marked with signage.

The council voted 5-1 on Tuesday to approve a first reading of the ordinance and send it to a second reading for the April 15 meeting. Councilman Jim Cooper voted no, and cited a need for more information involving the financial implications of the ordinance. Councilman Steve Langer was absent.

The ordinance complements state law, said City Manager Steve Hall, who noted that felony drug use and drug dealing are already illegal at schools, parks and transit centers.

Phil Schulte was among five citizens who spoke Tuesday in favor of the ordinance during public comment. Schulte, who represents the Hidden Creek Neighborhood Association, wants to expand the law to cover all city properties including the waterfront.

“Needles and drug paraphernalia are found in waterfront areas, which is bad for us and wildlife,” he said.

Connie Lorenz, executive director of the Olympia Downtown Association, supports the drug-free zones as “another tool in our belt that can help make downtown a better place.”

Olympia resident Pam Kentner said she is concerned about the safety of the downtown area, and said the ordinance will help strengthen the city.

“I am concerned that Olympia has become a magnet for the homeless and drug use,” she told the council.

According to a map provided by the city, the drug-free zones overlap with one another and cover a sizable portion of downtown.

Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim said sentencing enhancements can add 24 months to the minimum sentence of one year for first-time offenders caught dealing drugs in one of the drug-free zones. The enhancements could make offenders more inclined to seek drug treatment as part of their sentence, Tunheim said. If an offender is prohibited by a judge from entering the drug-free zone, the ordinance gives police more authority to arrest the person who violates that court order, Tunheim said.

The new law has its critics. Downtown business owner Joe Hyer, in a letter to the City Council this week, called the ordinance “bad policy.” He questioned the city’s ability to deter drug related crimes.

“I fear you will be seen by the public as just passing another meaningless law,” Hyer wrote. “There is no more teeth to this than is already in place.”

At the meeting, Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts said the drug-free zones are among several strategies aimed at reducing the distribution of heroin and methamphetamine in downtown Olympia. In 2014, the police department added a second officer to its downtown walking patrol, and on April 1, the department restored a paid detective to the Thurston County Narcotics Task Force.

Roberts noted that the zones can also have an economic impact because the presence of drug-related activity discourages the public’s use of facilities.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Cooper had made a motion to table the ordinance for a month, but the motion was voted down by the other council members. Although he hopes the ordinance reduces drug-related crime downtown, Cooper said the law focuses on enforcement and incarceration instead of treatment and prevention for drug offenders.

“We have a systemic problem and we need to fix it,” Cooper said.

Mayor Stephen Buxbaum acknowledged Cooper’s point about needing more information, and said Olympia is limited in the way it can influence these systemic changes.

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869 or ahobbs@theolympian.com


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