King County set a grim record in 2018. More people than ever before — nearly 400 — died of drug overdoses in the county, most involving opioids. Amid this sustained, deadly epidemic, it’s incredibly disappointing to read that our newly confirmed U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington will obstruct efforts to open a safe-consumption space, a decision he’s apparently based purely on ideology. Moran has told local officials “don’t go there,” even though he readily admits that he hasn’t even studied the issue.
Many in King County have studied the issue. In 2016, officials from King County, Seattle, Auburn and Renton formed a heroin and prescription opiate addiction task force to come up with solutions to the region’s overdose-death crisis. The task force was made up of experts from many disciplines and came up with eight recommendations for prevention, treatment and drug-user health. Most were uncontroversial.
One key recommendation was to open two pilot safe-consumption spaces, run them for two years, and then, based on an evaluation, determine whether to keep them open. This approach was adopted by the King County Board of Health, and funding was provided by the City of Seattle and King County.
The simple fact is safe-consumption sites are a proven way to prevent overdose deaths and connect people struggling with substance-use disorders to the help that they need. Around 100 such facilities operate in Australia, Canada and Europe. Multiple studies show that these sites save lives.
People who come to them are offered treatment to help them stop using drugs. They provide access to sterile syringes, which has been proven to reduce the spread of HIV, hepatitis and other diseases, without increasing drug use. A forthcoming study about the projected costs and benefits of safe consumption space in Seattle estimates that it would annually reverse 167 overdoses, prevent six deaths and reduce the use of emergency services. This would save taxpayers millions of dollars.
Moran’s knee-jerk obstruction in the face of this evidence is tragic, and it’s a repeat of the mistakes made in the failed War on Drugs. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people with substance-use disorders have a “chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug-seeking and use despite adverse consequences.” Stopping these deaths requires us to try a new approach, something Moran is apparently unwilling even to consider, regardless of the supporting evidence.
Local officials should push back against these threats. Criminal justice and health decisions are primarily a state and local issue, and we must not wait for the federal government’s permission. If we waited for federal government approval, we’d have no legal marijuana in Washington state, no death with dignity law and probably wouldn’t even have needle exchanges. Needle exchanges were attacked with the same false arguments when they were proposed in the 1990s, but now every expert agrees they work.
People in King County continue to die of drug overdoses at a greater rate than ever before. Threats from the federal government should not stop our efforts to help those caught up in this tragic epidemic and save lives. Opening a safe-consumption space is lawful under local and state law and is just another example of local government doing what it needs to do to address a public-health crisis.
Officials in King County should open a safe-consumption site as soon as possible, and work to educate the U.S. Attorney’s Office about how these facilities operate and why they are so desperately needed.