A town which once prided itself as being the “most hippie” in Washington has taken drastic action to outlaw drugs, after state-wide decriminalization led to spiking crime and child overdose deaths.
The proudly liberal city of 92,000 has been pushed to its limit, with the fire department responding to 223 overdoses — 2.5 calls per day — between January and April 12, according to Cascadia Daily.
Among the dead are two teenagers and a five year old, who had overdosed on fentanyl in March and was found dead by police with foam coming from her mouth.
Overdoses have become so commonplace, one victim was dead for hours before anyone even noticed, according to Bellingham council member Edwin Williams.
He told The Post: “A man was sitting on the curb in a parking lot with his head bowed, right out in the open … and a police officer told me that he had been dead for at least 12 hours,” Williams said. “It shocked me to my core.”
Pictures taken by The Post showed people slumped out in their cars, makeshift encampments of rusty RVs and one destitute person slumped by a shopping cart with their possessions, in what was once a picturesque coastal town an hour south of the Canadian border.
“I have lived here for 30 years, and no, I haven’t seen anything like this,” Williams said. “I would characterize our city as one that is trying and willing to bend over backwards to help and provide people with programs to address either addiction or homelessness.
“But at this point— the combination of COVID, the pervasiveness of fentanyl and the state law being changed— pushed everything to the limit. It was just the perfect storm and at some point, something had to be done.”
City officials approved an ordinance on April 10, making it a crime to “inject, ingest or inhale” hard drugs in public— a departure from the state’s law passed two years ago that did the opposite and decriminalized drug possession.
The city council’s decision to get tougher on drugs was in part sparked by the death of the five-year-old girl — which led to the arrest of her parents and another person, who have all since been charged with murder — and two teen deaths.
Emily Halasz, 15, was found dead on March 8 at a homeless encampment behind the Bellingham Home Depot, while 17-year old Aaren Coleman, who died at his grandfather’s home in King County.
Whatcom County, which includes Bellingham, had 11 overdose deaths in 2018 but that number has exploded since the pandemic with 50 in 2021 and 89 in 2022, according to the Whatcom County Medical Examiner’s Office.
However, the tough stance on open drug use has caused some controversy among residents who support a “diversion rather than jail” approach.
Under the new rules those who are caught using hard drugs like fentanyl or meth in public would be arrested — but only possibly face misdemeanor charges. Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood said the ordinance will also include a “community court” component where those arrested could be placed on a type of diversion program, details of which have yet to be solidified.
For Bellingham parents Steve and Laurie Satushek, the city ordinance is not enough. They say their son, Mick, 29, was failed by the authorities and the state before he recently lost his battle with drug addiction.
Laurie said Mick had struggled with schizophrenia for more than a decade and was possibly abusing methamphetamine and fentanyl when he was found dead in the town’s Arne Hanna Aquatic Center on April 5.
The Satusheks said despite stints in mental health treatment facilities and rehab in California and Washington, their son was often turned away or released back into the streets without them knowing.
“It’s been 10 years of living hell, understanding what happens with people that are mentally ill,” Laurie said in tears. “The fact that my son overdosed on fentanyl or any drug was just bound to happen because he did not have a chance in our system.”
Steve Satushek said Washington’s inability to implement laws that could address the growing mental health and drug crisis has left people like his son without a safety net.
“I would consider myself a progressive person, but there just are a lot of laws and things that I don’t think work properly,” he said.
“I walk around downtown and it’s just awful. I went with my son to some of these homeless camps, and they’re just horrid, filthy places. I feel real strongly that we need to go back to what the New York Mayor [Eric Adams] and [California] Governor Gavin Newsom have said, which is to involuntarily commit people who need that help.”
Bellingham officials began to see the uptick in crimes and public drug use after the 2021 state Supreme Court struck down Washington’s law that made simple drug possession a felony.
The current state law expires on July 1, which classifies drug possession as a misdemeanor on the third arrest. A proposed bill that would’ve provided harsher punishments— including a 90 day jail sentence — failed to garner enough votes in the state Senate last month.
“We cannot accept decriminalization in the middle of a fentanyl crisis,” said Governor Jay Inslee after the bill failed to pass.
Frustrated Washingtonians claim politicians’ inability to come up with solutions will cost even more lives.
“We are fairly affluent but there was still nothing we could do to save our son because the system worked against him,” Laurie Satushek said.
“We did ‘tough love’ and sent him to treatment centers. We did everything that we could to advocate for him. It was not enough and something has to change.”
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