‘Hippie’ city moves to ban hard drugs after 5-year-old dies from fentanyl poisoning

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The “most hippie” city in Washington state has now moved to ban using hard drugs in public after statewide decriminalization has led to a dramatic spike in overdose deaths, including the death of a 5-year-old girl.

On March 8, Melissa Ann Welch, 35, called police to report that her 5-year-old daughter, Olivia R. Doane, had died. When cops arrived at her home in Ferndale, Washington, they found little Olivia dead and her mouth covered in foam, leading them to suspect the child died of a drug overdose or poisoning. An autopsy report later confirmed that she died of acute fentanyl intoxication. Footage from a surveillance camera revealed that Olivia appeared “happy and healthy” on March 7, just one day before she died, which indicated to investigators that she must have ingested the fentanyl sometime that night.

Police almost immediately arrested Welch; the girl’s father, 33-year-old Michael Wayne Doane; and Welch’s current boyfriend, 32-year-old Cody Curtis Craig. They have all been charged with first-degree murder with an aggravating factor, meaning that the defendants allegedly either knew or should have known that the child was in danger.

Welch and Craig apparently weren’t deeply affected by Olivia’s tragic death as the two were reportedly spotted selling fentanyl and other narcotics just days later. Both have also since been assessed various drug-related charges.

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Though Welch and Craig may have been able to return to drug trafficking soon after Olivia’s death, the greater-Ferndale community has not gotten over it quite as easily. In fact, the city council of nearby Bellingham, a city which recently described itself as the “most hippie” city in Washington state, has now voted to ban any attempt to “inject, ingest or inhale” hard drugs within the city limits.

Just two years ago, the state supreme court struck down a law which made simple possession a felony, but Bellingham residents — even self-described liberals — claim that the permissive drug laws have allowed overdoses to soar. Overdose deaths in Whatcom County, where Bellingham and Ferndale are both located, quadrupled from 11 to 44 between 2018 and 2021.

“I have lived here for 30 years, and no, I haven’t seen anything like this,” said Bellingham Council Member Edwin Williams. “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.”

Nor is Olivia the only child victim of the county’s rampant drug use. Two other minors residing in Whatcom County — 15-year-old Emily Halasz and 17-year old Aaren Coleman — died of a fentanyl overdose in just the past two months. Halasz was discovered dead at a homeless encampment near a Bellingham Home Depot, while Coleman passed away at his grandfather’s house at a different part of the state. Mick Satushek, a former athlete, died from fentanyl on April 5. He was just 29.

“I would consider myself a progressive person,” said Mick’s father, Steve Satushek, “but there just are a lot of laws and things that I don’t think work properly

“I walk around downtown, and it’s just awful,” he continued. “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] Gov. Gavin Newsom have said, which is to involuntarily commit people who need that help.”

“We are fairly affluent, but there was still nothing we could do to save our son because the system worked against him,” added Laurie Satushek, Mick’s mom. “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.”

While the vote to make drug-use a crime in Bellingham may be a step in the right direction, its impact will likely be limited. Those arrested for using may face only misdemeanor charges, if they are charged criminally at all. Many residents have balked at the new measure, preferring instead that law enforcement give users “diversion rather than jail.” So-called “community courts” may also be established to help adjudicate some of the drug-related cases in the area.

Kristina Michele Martens, an at-large member of the city council, gesticulated dramatically at the public meeting as she discussed the measure. She spoke about the “human beings who we have failed at every single level” who must now relocate “to dimmer streets” because of the new law. Despite Martens’ opposition, the measure passed 5-2.

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