Heroin addiction task force recommends Seattle open safe consumption sites

"Ghost" behind QFC had just purchased and cooked up $10 worth of heroin (Image: Tim Durkan with permission to CHS)

“Ghost” behind QFC had just purchased and cooked up $10 worth of heroin (Image: Tim Durkan with permission to CHS)

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.

A night on Broadway (Image: Tim Durkan with permission to CHS)

A night on Broadway (Image: Tim Durkan with permission to CHS)

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.”

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8 thoughts on “Heroin addiction task force recommends Seattle open safe consumption sites

  1. Stop the drug war with objective of shutting down the black market. The drug war has failed. The drug war is driving the problems, not fixing them. Decriminalization/legalization is necessary, it needs to be backed up with public health announcements explaining exactly why it is needed. Its not in any way condoning the abuse of addictors, it is done bc the alternative, the drug war, has made things infinitely worse on almost every level, to include making drugs abundantly available to any & all that wants them.
    We need to pull LE out of the drug biz – that will free up a lot of resources currently chasing their collective tails. When the laws create more harm and cause more damage than they prevent, its time to change the laws. The $1 TRILLION so-called war on drugs is a massive big government failure – on nearly every single level. Its way past time to put the cartels & black market drug dealers out of business. Mass incarceration has failed. We cant even keep drugs out of a contained & controlled environment like prison.
    We need the science of addiction causation to guide prevention, treatment, recovery & public policies. Otherwise, things will inexorably just continue to worsen & no progress will be made. Addiction causation research has continued to show that some people (suffering with addiction) have a “hypo-active endogenous opioid/reward system.” This is the (real) brain disease, making addiction a symptom, not a disease itself. One disease, one pathology. Policy must be made reflecting addiction(s) as a health issue.
    The war on drugs is an apotheosis of the largest & longest war failure in history. It actually exposes our children to more harm & risk and does not protect them whatsoever. In all actuality, the war on drugs is nothing more than an international projection of a domestic psychosis. It is not the “great child protection act,” its actually the complete opposite.
    The lesson is clear: Drug laws do not stop people from harming themselves, but they do cause addicts to commit crimes and harm others. We need a new approach that decriminalizes the disease. We must protect society from the collateral damage of addiction and stop waging war on ourselves. We need common sense harm reduction approaches desperately. MAT (medication assisted treatment) and HAT (heroin assisted treatment) must be available options. Of course, MJ should not be a sched drug at all.

  2. It’s funny because there’s a lot of studies, evidence and real life examples of safe consumption sites not only getting users off the streets, but actually helping people towards rehabilitation. Vancouver BC has even reported that it’s SAVED them money, due to not having to respond to overdoses and hospitalization bills.

    The opposition is basically just busy body hand-wringers, whose only real ‘argument’ is that they don’t want to acknowledge drug use and that allowing a safe consumption site is going to encourage drug use and make the neighborhood more dangerous.

    A lot of heroin users would love to kick their habit, but don’t know how or where to start or are just scared. Turns out a safe spot where help is available, but not aggressively pushed on users, is pretty much the best method of treatment.

  3. While I’m actually PRO-safe injection sites, I was in Vancouver BC three weeks ago near their version of the site, and it was very concerning what I saw in regards to cleanliness and safety. It’s hard to describe, but the two square blocks around the site were in very rough shape (broken glass from parked car theft and trash everywhere, open daylight drug use/defecation, lots of souls laid out on the sidewalk).

    I mention this in the hope that Seattle can learn from Vancouver’s mistakes and keep the surroundings of ours to come safe and clean.

    • That area in Vancouver is called the Downtown East Side and has been a disaster long before the injection site was ever imagined. Last time I walked through there about three years ago it was actually more cleaned up than I had seen it previously due to the housing activism and the fact that the province bought many of the old Single Room occupancy hotels in the area and turned them into something other than drug dealing holes for low income residents.Don’t know if it is still the case but at one point the DTES had the highest rate of HIV in an urban neighborhood in North America. Seattle has nothing like the DTES, nothing even close.

  4. Thea Oliphant-Welles supports the “CHELs” because she “promises” that addicts will get better when given the opportunity. The CHELs can serve a public health purpose, but I doubt very much they will lead to recovery on the part of many addicts. Will they be staffed 24/7 with competent addiction specialists who will try to get addicts into treatment? That would be very expensive. Most clients of CHELs will continue to use, albeit in a safer way.

    A similar situation applies to the methadone clinics, such as the large one on First Hill. Supposedly, such places have the goal of getting addicts completely off opiates within a reasonable time frame. But the reality is that many clients of such clinics continue to get their daily fix month after month, year after year.

    • Living on FH is nice, with the exception of that clinic. Nothing like seeing the zombies wandering around on my way to work in the morning. Ridiculous to allow it in the middle of a neighborhood like that.

  5. In Washington State law abiding citizens who need pain meds to exist, can not get them anymore, there has been a letter that went out to all doctors saying no more pain meds unless active cancer or end of life, they (the Gov) and the media lie and say that it has to do with primary doctors but it doesn’t primary doctors will not write scripts and all the pain specialists are told if they write them, they will have their licenses taken away and threaten jail time, so Drug addicts get a clinic to shoot, smoke and the real drug addicts that abuse pain meds can take or shoot their drugs but the citizens who have debilitating pain can no longer get their medication, veterans that come home blown up can not get pain meds, old people who have debilitating pain can not get pain meds but criminals in WA can shoot up at the expense of the tax payers and if they go into treatment they can be on methadone for the rest of their lives at the expense of law abiding tax payers, but if you take methadone for pain and are law abiding you cant have the medication. That’s what is it to be a citizen of Washington State and actually the whole United States. Does anyone else see the problem here? Or is it just me a person who was in a head on collision, has recurring shingles which has destroyed my nerves so I have the nerve pain all the time, and has a fused ankle that is non union and when I walk the screws cut through the flesh etc etc etc. So now I will be bed ridden and over 2000 people have committed suicide in WA state according to the medical field in 1 month due to being cut off their pain meds, some pain is to much to handle, Vets are killing themselves at a rate of 22 a day because they cant get meds, but if you’re a Heroin, Crack or Opiod Addict you are treated like royalty in WA State if your law abiding and in pain they don’t care if you die, they want it because it saves them money, that goes in the pockets of the `1%, in Sweden they have clinics for people who are in pain and cant handle it so you can successfully commit suicide, maybe they can put one of those clinics next to the Clinic for the Heroin addicts, so law abiding citizens who are in pain can kill themselves while they watch the drug addicts next door getting high. Canada gives out Heroin so buckle up Washington if your in pain go kill yourself but if you’re a drug addict come on down! If your in pain and kill yourself they don’t know and don’t care but if you’re a drug addict we care.