As a new task force convenes to address the region’s heroin epidemic, King County residents should prepare to support numerous options for treating a growing number of addicts.
THE horrendous effects of heroin addiction can be felt everywhere, from homeless encampments under bridges and on the streets of glittering downtown Seattle to rural communities throughout the state.
Maintaining the status quo is not an option. Nor is simply blaming people who are dealing with addiction. The only way to address this public health crisis — and to end the death spiral for some — is to acknowledge the scope of the problem and to be open to exploring new approaches to treatment.
For a primer, watch the harrowing two-hour PBS Frontline episode, “Chasing Heroin,” based largely in the Puget Sound area, about the epidemic of opioid and heroin addiction. It includes the heartbreaking story of TV personality Penny LeGate’s daughter Marah Williams, who died at 19 of a heroin overdose despite her parents’ efforts to save her.
Though the societal costs of addiction are breathtaking, cities from Bremerton to Tukwila to Renton have fought the opening of methadone treatment centers. In Bremerton, one opponent switched sides once his own son started using heroin.
Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away.
More people in King County now seek treatment for heroin addiction than for alcoholism. The 2014 death rate from opioid overdoses reached 156 people — a threefold increase over 2009.
Last week, King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced the formation of a new, large task force to recommend longterm solutions.
They stood with experts in front of a shuttered Beacon Hill detox center that will reopen this fall thanks to local funding. This is the right direction, but the region needs much more financial support from the state and federal government to address the unmet need for services. More than 150 people are waiting for help in King County alone.
State legislators must ensure reimbursement rates for treatment providers get a boost in the final budget. In recent years, inadequate reimbursement levels have forced the closure of two area treatment centers.
They also should expand the state’s involuntary treatment laws, currently used for people with severe mental illness, to include people disabled by severe addiction. If that bill, HB 1713, passes and is funded, King County is poised to quickly open a secure treatment center.
As the task force prepares its recommendations, communities outside of Seattle must be open to good suggestions that have worked elsewhere, including the possibility of giving primary care doctors more leeway to treat addicts, more rapid housing, and the opening of more methadone clinics and safe injection sites.
Now is not the time to thwart regional solutions.
Harm reduction is the key to facing this heroin epidemic head-on and preventing wave after wave of senseless deaths.