Seattle could become the first city in the U.S. with a site providing medical supervision for people using illegal drugs like heroin and cocaine.
Seattle could become the first city in the U.S. with a public site where users can inject and smoke hard drugs under medical supervision.
One local group plans to open a bare-bones safe-consumption site on a shoestring budget as soon as possible, while another group has launched an awareness campaign to build support among politicians and communities.
Proponents say one or more sites could reduce overdose deaths, HIV and hepatitis C transmissions and the number of used needles that litter sidewalks and alleys.
They say the sites would keep drug users alive long enough to seek treatment and give people on the margins of society means to access help.
The proponents point to Insite, a 13-year-old safe-injection site in Vancouver, B.C., where no overdose deaths have occurred. Founder Liz Evans spoke about the site to the Seattle City Council’s public-health committee last month.
Some council members were enthusiastic and Mayor Ed Murray says he wants to learn more. King County Sheriff John Urquhart says he’s leaning toward backing the safe-consumption sites idea.
“I was a narcotics detective, so I’m still trying to wrap my head around this,” Urquhart said. “But the more I hear, the more open I am to the possibility.”
The People’s Harm Reduction Alliance, which has run a needle exchange in the University District for decades, is the group pushing to open a safe-consumption site right away. Director Shilo Murphy says the time for talking passed long ago.
“This isn’t a matter of if — this is a matter of when,” he said. “We need to move ahead as fast as we can because this is a crisis, because people are dying.”
Murphy says his group has raised about $20,000 and is looking for a landlord. He says a small storefront or shipping container would allow room for four to eight people to inject or smoke along with two volunteers, including a nurse.
Murphy says his group began planning a site more than two years ago, when Mike McGinn was mayor and was talking about ending the “war on drugs.”
“We were like, ‘This is the right time to strike,’ ” he said. “We went to work.”
Since then, heroin has become an even more serious problem. In 2014, deaths from heroin overdoses in King County reached 156, up from 99 in 2013 and 49 in 2009.
Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine on March 1 convened a heroin-addiction task force, charging it with finding ways to expand treatment.
The task force may consider recommending one or more safe-consumption sites for Seattle. To buoy that possibility, VOCAL-WA, a grassroots group helping people affected by drug laws and homelessness, organized public panels last month at the University of Washington, Seattle University and the Capitol Hill Community Council. Evans, from Vancouver, took part in all three talks.
Dozens of peer-reviewed studies show the Vancouver, B.C., site has saved lives, reduced disease transmission and promoted entry into addiction treatment.
“There have been overdoses, but nobody has died. That’s a big deal,” said Caleb Banta-Green, researcher with the UW’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.
The death rate among heroin users is about one in 100 per year, he said.
In Vancouver, there was opposition from people who said Insite would boost drug use and enable addiction. When proponents won a court battle and then began serving users, local perceptions began to change, Evan says.
Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, who chairs the committee Evans met with, stopped short of endorsing safe-consumption sites outright. But Bagshaw said she’s intrigued. Council members Debora Juarez, M. Lorena González, Kshama Sawant and Mike O’Brien all signaled they’re supportive.
The Capitol Hill Community Council is on board with the idea, says Jesse Perrin, an officer with that group who separately works as an aide to O’Brien.
“We hear about used needles in parks, in alleys. Having this would increase the health and well-being of people using and people not using,” Perrin said, mentioning his group would welcome a site on Capitol Hill. “Our plan is to engage every neighborhood council in Seattle for a collective voice on this.”
There are questions about how law-enforcement would handle a safe-consumption site in Seattle. Drugs like heroin and cocaine would remain illegal. Insite has a scientific research exemption that covers injected drugs only.
Murphy would open a site without permission, he says. He doubts local leaders would risk their progressive bona fides by coming down hard on his work.
Patricia Sully, a staff attorney with the Public Defender Association who works with VOCAL-WA, noted Washington has made marijuana legal on its own.
“We already live in a state where our law contravenes federal law,” Sully said. “There are reasons to be hopeful we wouldn’t see federal intervention.”
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg is keeping an open mind after speaking with Vancouver police who credit Insite with saving lives, he says. But Satterberg is concerned about concentrations of drug users, buyers and sellers.
“Nobody would want that on their block,” he said in a statement. “I would encourage us to think instead of … a number of health clinics throughout the region, or even as a mobile clinic, instead of one large single site.”
Proponents agree a multiple-site approach could work better for Seattle because drug activity is more dispersed than in Vancouver, often occurring in downtown, Belltown, the University District, Ballard and on Capitol Hill.
Urquhart says he’ll defer to Seattle officials: If city leaders want a site, his deputies won’t arrest people coming and going from it, the sheriff said.
Why is the safe-consumption site idea suddenly gaining momentum in Seattle? Banta-Green, from the UW’s alcohol and drug institute, thinks it may have something to do with more visible drug use.
“I’ve been counting dead people a long time,” he said. “Nobody really cared. But it’s so in-your-face now. You see people injecting in public. I hope we’re talking about this because we value lives, not because we want to hide the problem.”
Gretchen Taylor, a 69-year-old Magnolia resident who volunteers with the Neighborhood Safety Alliance, sat through Evans’ presentation to Bagshaw’s committee. Taylor’s group has criticized the city’s handling of public drug-use, calling for tougher measures.
But she likely would support a public-consumption site. Taylor says she has an adult child who’s been a heroin user for many years.
“I think this would be wise, as long as it’s part of a more comprehensive strategy,” she said.
Banta-Green says public-consumption sites could work in Seattle. Eighty-seven percent of Public Health — Seattle & King County needle-exchange users expressed interest in a safe-injection site, a 2013 study by UW graduate student Derek Low found.
Sidney Wilson, a 59-year-old member of VOCAL-WA who said he stopped using cocaine in 2002, says such sites would “be a blessing” for people on the street.
“With that, you have peace of mind. You don’t have to worry about rushing to inject your drugs. You’re not looking over your shoulder for the police. You don’t have to worry about getting beat up and robbed or overdosing,” he said.
Public-consumption sites wouldn’t result in every user seeking treatment. Banta-Green believes easier access to aids like Methadone and Buprenorphine is a more important goal.
“But I imagine it would give them some encouragement,” Wilson said. “It would be there in the back of their mind, like a seed you plant and let it grow.”