The initiative would have allowed King County voters to decide whether to ban public funding for safe-injection sites and sanction those who operate such facilities.
Seattle and King County have cleared a hurdle in their two-year-long effort to open a controversial safe-injection site, but there is still no guarantee one will ever open amidst legal threats from the Trump administration and local opposition.
On Thursday, the Washington state Supreme Court unanimously struck down a proposed county initiative that would have allowed voters to decide whether to ban public funding for safe-injection sites. The court found that Initiative 27 — slated for the February 2018 ballot before being rejected by a King County judge last year — infringed on the authority of the Metropolitan King County Council.
“While we do not question whether a different initiative could be used to set policy concerning (safe-injection) sites,” the initiative interfered with the council’s budget-setting authority, wrote Justice Charles Johnson for the court.
With state opposition out of the way for the moment, Seattle leaders are hoping to open a safe-injection site in 2019, potentially in a vehicle that could be parked outside public-health clinics or properties in the city, according to Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, chair of the council’s health committee. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan cheered the ruling, calling it “the right decision for Seattle” in an emailed statement.
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Safe-injection sites are intended to allow people to use drugs in a sanitary environment overseen by medical professionals. Some sites are already open in Canada and Europe. Several cities, including Seattle, are vying to open the first site in the U.S., in apparent violation of federal drug laws.
Supporters say the sites would reduce overdose deaths and increase the chances users will connect to services, based on research at a Vancouver, B.C., facility open since 2003. There were 260 opioid-involved deaths in King County last year, and fentanyl-related overdoses are on the rise.
Critics, led by former Bothell Mayor Joshua Freed, argued that money and political will spent on the sites could be better spent on drug treatment, and that the sites amount to government-sponsored drug use.
The U.S. Attorney in Seattle, Annette Hays, was not available for comment on Thursday, but in August said that the emergence of fentanyl, a highly-potent synthetic opioid, led the federal government to believe there are “better ways” to address the problem than safe-injection sites.
The I-27 campaign last year gathered more than 69,000 signatures of King County voters, but Protect Public Health, a group of public-health experts and people who have lost loved ones to overdose, sued to keep the initiative off the 2018 ballot. King County Superior Court Judge Veronica Alicea-Galván blocked the initiative last October, recognizing the authority of the King County Board of Health over budgeting matters.
The measure’s sponsor, IMPACtion, appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, which affirmed Alicea-Galván’s decision.
The local effort to open the nation’s first safe-injection site gained steam in 2017, when King County Executive Dow Constantine and then-Seattle Mayor Ed Murray endorsed a recommendation from a task force on heroin and opiate addiction to open two pilot sites, one in Seattle and one elsewhere in the county. Siting such a facility, however, is a difficult task, and options for the non-Seattle site have narrowed, with Bellevue, Kent, Renton, Auburn and Federal Way banning them.
Mosqueda said Seattle officials have been talking to the King County administration about using a mobile van at an unspecified Seattle location, but stressed that it would not enter a neighborhood without conversations with the community beforehand.
“When we don’t have these overdose-prevention sites, the reality is that our libraries, our parks, our neighborhoods, they’re already being used as injection sites,” Mosqueda said. “No one wants to find a needle or come across someone who’s overdosed … We need all avenues of intervention.”
The Seattle City Council recommitted to funding a site in the 2019 budget, with $1.4 million set aside in one-time funding. King County has nearly $1 million in funds to support a site in Seattle, according to Public Health – Seattle & King County.
Durkan hopes to obtain additional state funding, as she said the cost of a site with services would cost a minimum of $2.5 million a year. Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said he’s prepared to defend the mayor and City Council on whatever next steps they take.
King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, a supporter of safe-injection sites, said she agrees with the court’s decision and doesn’t think public-health policy should be decided through an initiative.
“Safe-injection sites have the potential to change the trajectory of a person’s life. I only wish my young nephew had access to one before he died,” she said in an email.
Outgoing state Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, who sought to ban the sites across the state, called them a step toward legalization of hard drugs. He said Thursday that citizens should be allowed to weigh in even though officials already budgeted for the sites, especially because the funds haven’t been used yet.
Freed agreed and pointed to the potential federal consequences of opening sites.
“We’ve heard quite clearly from the attorney general of the U.S. that heroin-injection sites are illegal,” Freed said. “We shouldn’t have to rely on the federal government to come in and enforce illegal acts committed by city officials.”
The Trump administration has threatened “swift and aggressive action” against Seattle and other cities should they open safe-injection sites. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, in a New York Times op-ed published in August, said such sites would be illegal, ineffective and would leave “unintended consequences. Injection sites normalize drug use and facilitate addiction by sending a powerful message to teenagers that the government thinks illegal drugs can be used safely,” he wrote.
But elected leaders are pushing for sites in Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco and Denver, and advocates are even pushing for them in places like Burlington, Vermont. In October, then-California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have greenlighted a safe-injection site in San Francisco, citing fears of “enabling illegal drug use.”
Seattle Times reporter Scott Greenstone contributed to this report.