Momentum is building in Seattle to open a space where heroin addicts can use their own drugs under medical supervision at so-called safe consumption sites.
A task force of opiate addiction experts, public officials, law enforcement officials, and former addicts released a 99-page report Thursday outlining eight recommendations on what the city and region should do to tackle its heroin epidemic. Among those is opening two “community health engagement locations” — one in Seattle and one in greater King County.
“I believe we should have these sites,” said Mayor Ed Murray, who will be visiting safe consumption sites in Vancouver, BC this week. There is currently no operating safe consumption site in the U.S. and task force members acknowledged there would be legal challenges to overcome.
During the report release at Harborview Medical Center Thursday, Murray avoided discussing where the Seattle site could be located or when it would be open, but said he was already anticipating local opposition. The 30-member task force recommended CHELs should be located near known overdose “hotspots.” The cost of opening a CHEL has not yet been determined nor has a funding source.
Thea Oliphant-Welles, a social worker with the King County Needle Exchange, said that harm reduction approach was the only thing that allowed her to stop using heroin 11 years ago. “I know it sounds scary for folks, but I promise you when you give people an opportuniy to get better, they will,” she said.
CHS explored the possibility of a safe consumption site on Capitol Hill earlier this year after the neighborhood was dubbed a overdose hub by researchers and experts. The Capitol Hill Community Council has endorsed safe consumption sites.
On Wednesday CHS reported on the father who went searching for the location of his son’s death in Interlaken Park and ended up finding another set of human remains — discoveries that underscored the epidemic of addiction and homelessness in Seattle.
King County Sheriff John Urquhart, who sat on the Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force, also endorsed the concept of harm reduction over jailing those suffering from addiction.
“I’m here to tell you the war on drugs hasn’t worked,” he said. “I was a foot soldier in it so I have some experience.”
Members of the task force also recommended expanding access to buprenorphine, a “opioid use disorder” medication that has been shown to cut the odds of dying in half for users. Unlike methadone, buprenorphine can be prescribed by a regular physician in an office setting.
The report repeatedly stresses the importance of “treatment on demand,” where clients are able to access medications or treatment the same day they seek it. The task force recommended a “buprenorphine first” model.
Removing the state-mandated caps to the number of clients that can be served at opioid treatment programs is also key, the report said. Currently, opioid treatment programs are capped at 350 clients per dispensary. King County could waive that cap for treatment centers within its borders.
Expanding access to naloxone, an opiate antidote, has been one of the most tangible overdose prevention methods implemented in the region over the past year. Earlier this year the task force recommended that naloxone kits be immediately deployed to law enforcement officials in the region. Seattle Police officers have already used them to save several people from overdoses.
The report also recommended that health care facilities and schools augment screening practices to identify opioid use.
Members of the task force struck an optimistic tone when discussing their recommendations in the ace of some troubling statistics. Heroin overdose deaths in King County tripled from 2009 to 2014 while deaths from prescription drugs decreased. Detox admittances for heroin now outnumber those for alcohol in King County and opiate overdose deaths in the region are at an all time high.
“I am not remarkable, the remarkable thing that is I got what I needed,” said Oliphant-Welles of her heroin addiction recovery. “We should be figuring out what people need and making sure they get it.”