Bellevue voted to ban safe injection sites, although none has been proposed for King County’s second-largest city. The prospect of hosting an injection site is causing political ripples across the county, and resistance seems to have stalled the sites.
Bellevue banned safe-injection sites for heroin users Monday although none has been proposed for King County’s second-largest city and it’s highly unlikely one would be.
The controversial sites endorsed by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine appear to have stalled, even as they ripple through local politics.
The unanimous Bellevue City Council vote was driven, said Mayor John Stokes, by concerns that a safe-injection site could hinder the development of the city’s first year-round homeless shelter.
Shelter opponents have suggested an injection site might be located on county property next to a shelter proposed for the Eastgate neighborhood, Stokes said. “We really need to get this shelter located,” the mayor said. Rumors of a nearby injection facility “impedes discussion of the homeless shelter.”
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The Metropolitan King County Council voted last month not to spend any money on establishing injection sites unless a city’s elected officials explicitly approved hosting one.
That budget proviso “essentially kills a safe-consumption site anywhere but in Seattle,” said Kris Nyrop, a drug-policy researcher in Seattle for two decades and an outreach worker with the Public Defender Association.
A site wouldn’t even be allowed in Seattle under Initiative 27, which proposes a countywide vote to ban the facilities. King County elections officials have just started validating I-27 signatures, according to a spokeswoman.
If it qualifies, the initiative likely would land on the February ballot as it’s too late to make the November ballot under state law.
Resistance seems to have slowed, if not derailed progress on the sites recommended last year by a city-county task force.
The task force, led by public-health officials, had come up with a 99-page report last September detailing a comprehensive response to the region’s opioid crisis. In 2015, 229 deaths in King County were attributed to heroin and prescription opioid overdoses.
The task force called for more access to treatment with the medication buprenorphine, more prevention efforts and wider distribution of naloxone, a drug that counteracts overdoses.
It also recommended one safe-injection site in Seattle and one elsewhere in the county that reflected geographic concentration of drug consumption and overdose “hot spots.” The idea was to get drug-users out of public spaces and into a facility supervised by medical personnel where lives could be saved and treatment encouraged.
A local site would be the first in the U.S. But such facilities have operated in Europe since 1988, according to the task force, and in Vancouver, B.C., since 2003. An article published Tuesday in an academic journal says an underground safe-injection facility has operated in an undisclosed U.S. location for three years.
County public-health officials are leading the local siting effort. But there is no timeline for picking sites and none has yet been identified, said James Apa, spokesman for Public Health – Seattle & King County.
With Murray deciding not to seek re-election in the wake of sexual-abuse allegations against him, Apa said he expects the process of selecting a Seattle site to stretch well into 2018.
“The mayor’s race and everything scrambled the process,” said Alex Fryer, a spokesman for Constantine. “We expect a new mayor in January and we’ll move forward.”
All leading contenders to replace Murray said they supported safe-injection sites.
Before Bellevue’s vote, the most recent political flashpoint involved Manka Dhingra, the Democratic candidate for Senate in the 45th District, representing Redmond, Kirkland and Woodinville.
The contest for the open seat — created by the death last year of Republican Andy Hill — pits Dhingra against Republican Jinyoung Lee Englund and will determine the balance of power in Olympia.
In recent years, a Republican coalition has held the Senate by a single vote — and sometimes used that leverage to outmaneuver the Democrat-controlled House and Gov. Jay Inslee.
When asked in the recent online forum if an injection site was coming to Redmond, Dhingra responded, no, the non-Seattle facility was going to Federal Way.
That led Federal Way City Councilmember Martin Moore to fire off a news release saying he would introduce legislation to ban the facilities.
Dhingra then clarified her statement, saying she had participated in a candidate forum where a similar question came up “and a South County location like Federal Way was mentioned.”
It was Nyrop who said that at a recent Redmond event. According to Nyrop, he said it would make sense to locate a safe-injection facility in South King County near State Road 99 because data showed “a fairly high cluster of fatal overdoses” there. That would make it the kind of “hot spot” the task force said should be a priority in selecting a site outside of Seattle.
Christian Sinderman, a consultant to Dhingra and other Democratic candidates, views I-27 as a partisan “wedge” issue, meant to peel off support from candidates who side with public-health officials in supporting safe-injection.
The initiative campaign has been partly funded by major donors to Republican campaigns including Clyde Holland, Ken Fisher, Bruce McCaw and Skip Rowley. Signature-gathering began in Redmond and was focused on the Eastside suburbs, Sinderman said, though it was unlikely a site would be proposed there. And a spokesman for the I-27 campaign, Keith Schipper, is a former communications director for the Republican State Party.
Schipper maintains the initiative is not partisan and its supporters include Seattle Democrats. “I-27 is a broad, diverse campaign focused on keeping addicts and our communities safe,” he said.
Chris Vance, a former state Republican Party chairman, said he believes those leading the I-27 campaign sincerely believe safe-injection is bad policy. But they also see it as a way to make political gains.
It is “absolutely the type of thing that’s been a wedge issue that allows suburban Republicans to differentiate themselves from Seattle Democrats,” said Vance, a former Metropolitan council member.
But it’s not enough to win legislative seats, he said, because safe-injection is so overshadowed by news about Donald Trump. “It doesn’t trump Trump,” he said.