The next new idea in drug policy reform is a good idea, writes columnist Jonathan Martin

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The Seattle area is the nation’s incubator for the anti-war on drugs.

Well before pot became legal, the nation’s first needle exchange opened in these parts in 1988. The 1811 Eastlake housing project, which allows alcoholics to keep drinking, helped make Seattle’s “Housing First” model official federal policy. And a Seattle police social-services diversion for low-level drug dealers is being copied around the country.

The next big idea is called a safe-injection site. It’s going to become news in the next few months as we consider opening the first facility in the U.S. where hard drugs are openly consumed under medical supervision.

It is fair to view Seattle’s utopian chemistry-set tinkering with policy with skepticism. But this idea is a good one, because it will save lives.

I saw what a safe injection site looked like on a reporting trip to Vancouver, B.C., in 2003. At a sterile, federally licensed clinic in that city’s massive open-air drug market, I watched a construction manager named John inject a speedball of heroin and cocaine under the gaze of a nurse, who watched for signs of overdose.

The ideas for that facility and the discussions now under way in King County are simple. Treat drug addiction like a public health problem, not a criminal justice one. Keep people with addiction alive long enough to get treatment. And mitigate the civic consequences, such as piles of used needles in the alley.

Research on these sites — there are nearly 100 around the world — overwhelmingly shows a drop in overdoses and in infections of HIV and Hepatitis C caused by dirty needles. A Canadian cost-benefit analysis showed a 5-to-1 return.

Yet the U.S., the world’s leading drug market, has been closed. It is striking to read the U.S. view in my story from 13 years ago, as a George W. Bush administration official doubled-down on the war on drugs: “If there is not a criminal-justice sanction, as we’ve learned in the U.S., they won’t go to treatment.”

How the politics of drugs change. The mayor of Ithaca, N.Y., made waves this month by advocating for a site.

A publicly sanctioned room to shoot heroin was unthinkable until the nature of the demand changed, and the demographics of addiction changed. When prescription opioids and heroin ravage white, middle-middle class households, the unthinkable becomes tolerant.

And give credit to reform-minded cops like King County Sheriff John Urquhart, who last week said he was open to a safe-injection site. Overdose deaths by heroin in King County tripled since 2010, to 156. “Guess what? The war on drugs hasn’t worked, and we need to try to do something different,” Urquhart said.

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg told me that he’s heard from Vancouver police that the city’s site is “saving many lives, so I am not quick to dismiss the option.” Instead, he talked about the tricky logistics of opening a site (he prefers scattered or mobile locations rather than one big facility).

Fair point. Vancouver’s safe-injection site was dropped in the middle of an existing drug market, on the Downtown Eastside. Seattle doesn’t have one central drug zone, and it is easy to imagine a drug market cropping up around a safe injection clinic.

But Seattle neighborhoods also are up in arms about the status quo. Used needles litter parks from Green Lake to Rainier Beach. Downtown Seattle clean up patrols picked up 5,993 needles last year. Give users a place to use other than an alley, and the flotsam of addiction recedes.

The Capitol Hill Community Council, after meeting with advocates pushing for a site, was receptive. “If folks are injecting, and we can provide them a place to inject safely, their safety increases. And we’re not going to have needles” all over, said council member Jesse Perrin. “For us it was a very common-sense solution.”

A safe-injection site will be on the agenda of the new heroin task force launched last week by King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray. Both are open to the idea, but they and the task force will want months of vetting.

Meanwhile, the county’s big needle exchange provider is moving ahead anyway. The People’s Harm Reduction Alliance has raised about $20,000 for a plan to buy three shipping containers and convert them into mobile clinics where addicts can inject or smoke drugs. Shilo Murphy, the group’s director, said he’s trying to raise about $20,000 more.

“They can talk about it all they want,” said Murphy, referring to the task force. “This is going to happen whether they do it or not.”

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