Seattle and King County also need to find a stable source of funding for safe-injection sites.
The much challenged and championed safe-injection sites proposed for Seattle and King County are in need of stable funding and could get tangled in a legal battle with the federal government similar to what is happening in Pennsylvania, according to a letter sent March 8 to a City Council member by Seattle’s interim director for the Human Services Department (HSD).
Opening a safe-injection site is not on hold despite the potential legal troubles and a lack of ongoing funding highlighted in the letter, said Kamaria Hightower, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s spokesperson.
“The City hasn’t put the sites on hold. As was the case last year, we continue to need additional funding. We also continue to evaluate legal options in (the) face of potential lawsuits and/or prosecution from the federal government,” Hightower wrote in an email.
Seattle is one of a handful of cities trying to open locations, which the city calls Community Health Engagement Locations (CHEL), where intravenous drug users can use clean needles under the supervision of medical professionals. No safe-injection sites currently exist in the U.S., and none of the proposed facilities across the nation have opened. Safe-injection sites have operated in British Columbia since 2003 and in a number of European countries.
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The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit last month to block a nonprofit in Philadelphia from opening a safe-injection site. The lawsuit is being closely watched in Seattle and was cited in the letter from HSD’s interim director, Jason Johnson, to Seattle Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who chairs the Housing, Health, Energy and Workers’ Rights Committee.
“HSD continues to be concerned about the threats posed by potential lawsuits and/or prosecution from the federal government,” Johnson wrote in the letter. “The City of Seattle is closely watching the process of this lawsuit, and working with our City Attorney’s Office to consider all of our legal options, including potentially filing an amicus brief in the Philadelphia case or other litigation strategies.”
A stable funding source is also a concern, Johnson wrote. He points out that a supervised injection location would cost “approximately $2.5 million annually in addition to the capital costs.”
“As of this writing, there continues to be insufficient County funds appropriated to both pay for the operating activities of a CHEL and deliver the critical behavioral health services needed by King County residents,” Johnson wrote.
The Seattle City Council added $100,000 in one-time funding in the 2019 budget, according to Hightower. The city has committed up to $1.4 million in one-time funding for the site. King County has budgeted about $1 million for a Seattle location.
King County and Seattle’s proposed safe-injection sites have cleared a number of legal hurdles since 2017, when King County Executive Dow Constantine and former Seattle Mayor Ed Murray backed the idea. The city and county leaders endorsed the findings of a task force that suggested having one location in Seattle and another somewhere else in the county. Since then Bellevue, Federal Way, Renton, Kent and Auburn have all banned safe-injection sites.
In December, the Washington state Supreme Court unanimously struck down Initiative 27, which would have asked voters to determine the fate of safe-injection sites by banning public funding for the locations. The court upheld a 2017 ruling by a King County judge who ruled that the initiative infringed on the work of public-health officials.
The Trump administration weighed in on supervised injection sites in August when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote a New York Times op-ed saying the Department of Justice would take action against cities that launch safe-injection locations.