The proposed initiative to ban heroin safe-injection sites in King County was launched by local officials. Next step is collecting more than 47,000 signatures to place the measure on the November ballot.
An initiative to ban safe-injection sites in King County for heroin and other drugs was announced Thursday.
The proposed initiative requires signatures from 47,443 valid county voters to qualify for the November ballot, said its chief sponsor, Bothell City Councilmember Joshua Freed.
A task force created by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine last year recommended creation of two safe-injection sites — one in Seattle and one in another King County site. Murray and Constantine endorsed the panel’s recommendations.
Similar to a facility in Vancouver, B.C., that’s operated since 2003, the King County safe-injection sites would be the first in the U.S. They aim to reduce fatal overdoses and get users out of public alleys and into sites supervised by medical personnel who will encourage treatment options. Advocates say they are just one of the tools needed to address a heroin and opiate crisis.
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In King County, overdose deaths tied to heroin nearly tripled from 49 in 2009 to 132 in 2015.
Freed, a homebuilder, said public-consumption sites are not the appropriate response. “I don’t want to see heroin-injection sites because I do not believe they are the right way to treat people addicted to heroin,” said Freed, who was licensed as a mental-health counselor with the state from 2001-06.
The sites would enable users and lead to more overdoses, he said, adding, “This initiative is not against the user.”
He said he’d prefer an emphasis on discouraging doctors from prescribing opiates, expanding access to treatment, and making sure local police officers and firefighters are equipped with the overdose-reducing drug naloxone.
Also scheduled to spearhead the initiative at a Thursday news conference were state Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, and Speak Out Seattle, a coalition representing the Ballard, Phinney, Queen Anne, Greenwood and Magnolia neighborhoods that says it’s concerned with public safety, homelessness and heroin, opiate and methamphetamine addiction.
The initiative would ban public consumption of heroin and all federal Schedule I drugs except marijuana. It’s legal for adults to possess up to an ounce of pot in Washington, but state law prohibits public consumption.
Miloscia, who toured the Vancouver facility, has been an outspoken opponent of safe-injection sites, unsuccessfully proposing a bill in the Legislature to ban them. He also wrote a letter urging the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene and stop the sites.
Miloscia has told The Seattle Times he sees safe-injection sites as a step toward decriminalization and legalization of heroin. An opponent of marijuana legalization and an advocate of tighter restrictions on alcohol, Miloscia said we should “stigmatize people who get hooked on drugs to get into treatment.”
In an interview about the initiative, Miloscia predicted it would win handily in liberal King County and even gain approval in Seattle. He argued that hard-drug users need to face the threat of criminal sanctions to be steered into treatment.
Miloscia and Freed, a controversial figure in Bothell who has run for the Legislature as a Republican, said the initiative is not partisan. Their campaign has formed a political action committee called Impaction. It has not reported raising any money.
Constantine and Murray said earlier this year they were resolute in their support for safe-injection sites.
Both sides are likely to debate the merits of Insite, the Vancouver injection site that opened in 2003 and has seen nearly 3.5 million visits.
Task-force members such as Caleb Banta-Green, a public-health professor at the University of Washington, have said that safe-injection sites save lives. And, people are going to use drugs, he said, and citizens don’t want them using in public places.
Treatment is a major part of King County’s opioid response plan, Banta-Green said, and we’ve seen increased treatment with medications, as well as new programs to get people on medications. “The opponents seem to be purposefully ignoring what is actually going on,” he said in an email.
Users, who bring their own drugs, go to Insite for clean needles and to inject in booths that are mirrored so nurses and support staff can see. Nurses do not inject anyone.
Naloxone is regularly used there to revive people and prevent deaths. It has reversed nearly 5,000 overdoses without a death, proponents say, while also preventing the spread of HIV and hepatitis C.
The idea is to reduce risks, increase trust and guide people to treatment.
Critics in Canada have tried for years to shut down Insite, saying it doesn’t address underlying problems and enables addiction. They’ve likened it to giving alcoholics clean shot glasses.
They also point to the lack of successful treatment for Insite visitors. Of the 6,500 people who visited in 2015, only 252 finished treatment at Insite’s drug-treatment center, called Onsite.
Supporters counter that those figures don’t count the 4,000 people whose drug dependence was managed through methadone and other medication-assisted methods.
Research seems to support Insite’s success in reducing overdose deaths, but the studies have been small and limited in time.
If it qualifies, the proposal to ban safe-injection sites would be called Initiative 27, according to King County Elections. It would be the first citizen initiative on a King County ballot since 2008. That year, Initiative 26 made the county executive, assessor and council members nonpartisan positions.