Smoking on public transit hasn’t been tolerated for years — yet, in one of America’s most liberal cities, it’s so common that trains and buses are becoming toxic.
The catch is that riders aren’t smoking cigarettes or even marijuana.
No, according to a report Monday in The Seattle Times, the smoking of hard drugs on Seattle’s public transit is so frequent that the noxious fumes are getting to transit workers and discouraging ridership.
What’s more, the local transit workers union says violence has increased dramatically because of the drug use.
Unsurprisingly, Seattle is one of the cities where the “defund the police” movement took hold during the summer of 2020. In fact, the attitude of law enforcement there was so hands-off the city allowed demonstrators to establish an anarchic six-block occupied zone known as CHAZ or CHOP, depending upon when you were there.
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According to the Times, King County Metro Transit workers filed 398 security incident reports involving drug use in 2021. This is a massive increase from 44 in 2019 and 73 in 2020.
“Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587, representing 4,305 active members, says stronger enforcement is needed, including more police and security guards, with greater authority to remove people,” the Times’ Mike Lindblom wrote.
“Besides toxic smoke, union officials said crews who maintain transit stops have been punched, spat upon and threatened. Many incidents don’t show up in official reports, union leaders say.”
Before COVID-19, Seattle saw a dramatic rise in public transit ridership. It jumped 50 percent during the 2010s to 750,000 passengers a day — the biggest increase in the United States. However, ridership then fell by over half during the pandemic, and it hasn’t entirely rebounded.
During the summer of 2021, the Times reported, narcotics smoking began to become a major issue onboard buses and trains.
The complaints don’t involve marijuana, either. Instead, fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine — or some admixture thereof — are usually placed on a piece of aluminum foil that is heated from underneath by a lighter. The smoke is then sucked up by the user via a straw.
Unfortunately, that smoke doesn’t stay where it is. Since air circulation systems on buses and trains carry the air forward, riders and drivers get the brunt of the fumes.
Since the epidemic of drug use on public transit began last summer, six drivers have asked to stop operating their vehicles during their shift. Another 14 said they experienced symptoms such as dizziness, headaches or problems breathing from narcotics smoke.
“It smells like burnt peanut butter, mixed with brake fluid,” King County Metro Transit operator Erik Christensen told the Times. He has reported at least six incidents of narcotics smoking since October and collects reports from other drivers.
However, while King County Metro general manager Terry White conceded it’s a problem, he doesn’t think it’s time to get tough.
“Absolutely, we are a microcosm of what’s happening regionally and nationally,” White said. However, he added that while a new version of its enforcement policy is coming, he thinks it’s important (to use Lindblom’s words) to “show compassion, especially to riders who lack shelter.”
“We should not be coming down on a totally punitive side,” White said. “We should figure out how we serve community. Hopefully we’ll be putting some things in place, where you’ll see more police on a coach.”
Don’t count on whatever’s being put “in place” making much of a difference, however.
The new enforcement policy will be part of the Safety, Security, and Fare Enforcement Reform initiative — and the outrages there go beyond SaFE Reform being a preposterous example of words being shoehorned into an on-the-nose acronym. (Not that they even fit, anyhow.)
In the introductory paragraph to SaFE Reform on King County’s website, it’s stated that “Metro believes SaFE reform is a necessary step on its journey to becoming an anti-racist mobility agency.”
“Worldwide, racial justice movements are continuing to call out enforcement policies and practices for maintaining negative, imbalanced treatment of people based on their race,” the background section states.
“Such inequities continue to impact Metro, King County, and the country as a whole. Internally, Metro began asking how our agency can better live up to its four equity compacts: share power, interrupt business as usual, replace it with something better, and get comfortable with discomfort.”
If you want to get comfortable with discomfort, I suppose, driving a bus while someone smokes fentanyl a few seats behind you will, in fact, do that.
I’m not sure what it does for anti-racism, but at least it’ll “not be coming down on a totally punitive side.”
Furthermore, King County suspended fare enforcement back in 2020, and the unarmed Securitas guards who monitor Metro buses and trains don’t have the authority to either remove or arrest people.
A state legislator, Democrat Rep. Jamila Taylor, has proposed $500,000 for “de-escalators” trained in addiction and mental health to help convince individuals using drugs to get off — but with no authority to arrest or eject them, either.
There’s a reason the union endorsed law-and-order candidate Bruce Harrell for mayor of Seattle in 2021. Now that he’s in office, they’re hoping he can help — particularly since Local 587 Vice President Cory Rigtrup said riders aren’t going to come back until they don’t have to deal with methamphetamine fumes.
“We’re after the criminal activity, the smoking drugs, the assaults, the deterioration of transit,” Rigtrup said. “The solution is to restore transit, make it welcoming, bring back passengers.”
That might not be suitably “anti-racist” for King County Metro. However, if and when a bus or train operator has a deadly accident because he or she is overcome by drug fumes, one doubts there will be many people inquiring about the race of the fentanyl-smoker who triggered it.
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