A bill that funds federal health programs would prevent federal funding from being used for safe-consumption sites. This stipulation, along with statements made by Sessions’ Department of Justice that the sites would be subject to federal law, would have a chilling effect on what could be an effective tool to curb the opioid epidemic.
As the nation reels from the opioid epidemic, the question of how to curb these deaths and the suffering of addiction has been on the minds of public-health and government officials alike. An effective strategy for overdose prevention is already available, in the shape of safe-consumption spaces, yet outdated drug-war ideas promoted by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his allies may stop such projects in their tracks.
Safe-consumption sites (SCS) are clinic-like facilities that create a space for those who use drugs to do it safety — by providing clean materials to use, as well as trained staff on site to prevent death in the event of an overdose. Staff members befriend drug users and work to get them into treatment while keeping them alive.
This may sound radical, but decades of operation in countries around the world have proven SCS to be a sound way to address the opioid crisis. In fact, not a single person has died of an overdose in such a site despite around 100 of them operating around the world. Not only that, but SCSs reduce the risk of infections, such as HIV, hepatitis and endocarditis, and they provide direct access to medical care and social services, and reduce public injecting and the discarding of needles in surrounding communities. Because of all this, the safe sites even save communities money. Studies have also shown that overdose death rates in the vicinity of an SCS drop dramatically once a facility is operational.
It is easy to see why King County might welcome this approach, having had a record number of overdose deaths in 2016. The King County Executive and mayors of Seattle, Auburn and Renton convened a task force, putting out a final report that included recommendations to pilot at least two SCS in the area. The Seattle City Council budgeted funds this year for the creation of one and is currently working to identify a possible location.
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King County is moving in the right direction, working to attract vulnerable populations from the streets and into a safe, clean environment. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would be opposed to that.
Yet a dangerous line in a recent federal funding bill in the U.S. House does just that. The bill that funds federal health programs would prevent federal funding from being used for safe-consumption sites. This stipulation, along with statements made by Sessions’ Department of Justice that the sites would be subject to federal law, would create a chilling effect, discouraging and impeding localities from employing safe and effective tools that save lives and reduce diseases in their community.
When I served as director of the HIV/AIDS program in King County for its first 24 years, (from 1986 to 2010), I saw how language banning federal funding for syringe exchange programs prevented states from moving forward with this similarly innovative, lifesaving and evidence-based policy that helps prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. Let us not allow the misguided idea that such policies promote drug use lead us away from sensible public policy again.
We have hope. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington has been a champion on opioid issues and is the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee for public health funding. We are counting on her to ensure that the final bill doesn’t include the senseless ban. We hope she follows the lead of other top-ranking Democrats that have voiced support for the establishment of safe-consumption sites, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts.
The seriousness of the opiate overdose crisis demands that all solutions be on the table for consideration. That includes safe-consumption spaces. If our state, King County and Seattle decide to open such an operation, then we must not let drug-war zealots like Jeff Sessions slow us down. Lives are at stake, and those lives count more than the outdated ideas of Washington, D.C., bureaucrats.