“Researchers detected methamphetamine in 98% of surface samples and 100% of air samples, while fentanyl was detected in 46% of surface and 25% of air samples. One air sample exceeded federal recommendations for airborne fentanyl exposure at work established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”
These facts, and a host of others included in UW’s excellent new study, will surprise only those who don’t use transit. For the rest of us they confirm, finally, in concrete terms for all to see, a sense of what it is to work with the public on street level in post-COVID Seattle. I encourage reviewing the report itself, not just the press release or even the executive summary. There's a lot in there, and it can't be summed up in a word, other than to say that Marissa Baker, PhD, and team’s study is the first of its kind. No entity has studied the presence of airborne drug fumes in public spaces before, and Seattle is the ideal metropolis to start with: a city where non-users are forced to inhale fumes of the deadliest street drugs in existence, day after day. Some of the findings are comforting; some of them aren't.
We will continue to hear compelling pieces of political rhetoric, well-crafted speeches and declarations. We even have a brand new law allowing prosecution of public drug use (though no plan for how an overburdened judicial system would accommodate those arrests). It can all sound so promising on paper.
But then you walk outside.
What defines an activity as legal, or illegal? While a piece of legislation may declare a given activity unlawful, what matters is what the real-world consequences are. Needles, fumes, torches, foil, straw, brain damage, overdose– it is all 'legal,' practically speaking, because it is tolerated in broad daylight without consequences. My first experience with fentanyl was returning to the E Line after ten years away from driving Aurora Avenue. A young mother came forward to apologize for her toddler son, who'd vomited on the bus floor due to fumes coming from the teens smoking right next to them. Neither she nor I knew what fentanyl was back then. The mom escorted her sick child off the bus in bewildered confusion. An off-duty security guard riding homeward had to explain to me what just happened. This was the new status quo.
Third Avenue is populated primarily by commuters; the unhoused; street people; first responders; police; cleaning crews; and bus operators. These are the individuals most qualified to have an opinion on the state of the street. They extend over all political backgrounds, but there’s one thing they all agree on: Downtown Seattle is in terrible shape, and has seen no meaningful improvement in over three years.* If anyone’s telling you Third is now safe enough to take your kids or your grandmother, they’re not spending enough time outside. I’m waiting for change I can discern outside of a newspaper.
Studies like UW's are at their most valuable when they reveal ongoing institutional incompetence. There is more research to be conducted, and we should keep asking questions. But we know enough to know things need to change. What action besides words will we see? After the dutifully fervent press releases and concerned memos have aired, what then? Will my colleagues still have to call off sick on the road because of the resultant lightheadedness fentanyl causes? Will they, many of them new parents, see their long-term health impacted? Some have failed drug tests as a result of the work environment (which, now that we have the above data, should no longer be shocking). Will they have to face consequences they don't deserve? And all the while, my friends on the street. Will they still tell me of their companions overdosing? Will I continue to have conversations with parents where there is more silence than words, where what is communicated is too devastating to speak out loud?
We were the city of the future. What no one in our past could have anticipated was a world wherein a public crisis is met by leaders not with outrage, not sophistication, not solutions…
Hand-wringing, squabbling, and lip service– that is, the appearance of action– has taken the place of action. When the only entities with the power to exert widespread change are structured like corporate bureaucracies, you know you’re in trouble because no organizational structure is better suited for abdicating responsibility.** Top-heavy managerial hierarchies seem designed for such abdication. It’s always the fault of some other department. They’re looking into it. We’re so sorry.
Let me redirect your call.
Pardon my scathing tone. I do not wish to offend, but to awaken, like a parent who knows she must use a firm voice, who does so because she wishes to impress upon her child the gravity of what’s at stake. By now it should be obvious that the powers that be (I’m not pointing fingers at Metro but at a far larger and more directly responsible municipal government power structure) do not care about their constituents. In this approach they benefit themselves in the short term… but not in the long term. Street people vote. People who are afraid to go out also vote. People concerned for the welfare of their fellow citizens, for the health and safety of themselves and their children… all vote. If a politician’s primary goal is to get reelected, they would do well to remember this. You need people to believe that you care. One way to start is by effecting discernible change.
Metro made its name on addressing a public health issue. James R. Ellis and others tackled a problem in 1960– wastewater treatment– and handled it so well the newly-formed group was given 100 days to put together a transit system. They succeeded mightily, starting a tradition of “failing forward” with innovative, concrete action and demonstrable results.
Metro is now faced with another public health crisis. I believe if it had the autonomy to solve the situation itself, as it once did, it would by now have done so. But it no longer has that freedom. Metro is more or less run by the King County Council, who is itself beholden to abide by state laws governing what can and can’t be done, and for how much money.
As ever, the ultimate decisions will be made by people who don’t ride buses. By politicians who never set foot on Third Avenue. They don’t know the state of things out here. They don’t know our faces, lives, troubles. They haven’t lived the risk, felt the exposure, the wounds of mental and physical pain. If they did, things would've been fixed long ago. Most humans empathize with only the people they see in real life.*** And these powerful, well-meaning, and probably genuinely concerned folks aren’t coming out to see us in real life. If only they had the requisite courage and brass nerve to come down here and see. How will Downtown Seattle look and feel one, five, ten years from now? Time will tell. Since my long term health– that is, my life– quite literally hangs in the balance, I'm as curious as the rest of us.
What are we individuals to do, besides vote? What am I doing, out here in the maelstrom? What I can. My arms reach a few feet on either side of me. That is where I can effect change. I greet the passengers at 12th and Jackson as the fellow humans they are. (Remember, fentanyl users aren’t dangerous. They’re generally catatonic. People with schizophrenic disorders, on the other hand….) I treat the people around me as if they’re already my friends, and it works wonders like you wouldn’t believe. I do it because it makes me feel good. Interacting with strangers has been scientifically shown to improve one’s well-being, sense of belonging, and overall happiness. I give, and give, and give respect, love, acknowledgment, and on a long enough timeline it comes back around in spades. It rejuvenates me.
This beautiful cycle does not require a functioning government, nor a city with its municipal affairs in order.
*Further reflections (and nuance) in my deep dive on all things drugs and Seattle, here.
**Anna Patrick at The Seattle Times reveals which promises made on homelessness were broken, and how, in these two excellent breakdowns from 2022 and 2023.
***If you’ve been wondering why empathy’s been on the decline, this may be a factor. People spend less time with others in real life (or IRL, as the kids say) than they ever have. This is also why depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation are higher among young people than they’ve ever been. More here and here. Lecture by me on this subject, with works cited and further reflections, here.