Seattle, county move forward in fight against heroin deaths

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine are moving forward with all eight of the Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force’s recommendations to battle the region’s deadly epidemic.

“Opioid addiction is killing people in our community, sparing no age, race, sexual identity, income level or neighborhood,” Constantine said last week. “The experts we brought together have provided us with the battle plan we need to defeat this epidemic — a plan to save lives, to make it easier for people to get the help they need, to prevent the devastating harm that addiction causes. Unless we are willing to let this suffering continue, we have an obligation to turn their plan into action.”

The nearly 40 experts from public health, criminal justice, hospitals, schools and treatment providers and researchers convened in March 2016 and released a report and recommendations in September.

The recommendations fall into three categories — primary prevention, treatment expansion and enhancement, and health and harm reduction.

Under prevention, the task force recommends increasing awareness of the effects of using, including overdosing, promoting medication storage and disposal, and working with schools and providers to better identify opioid use.

Recommendations to improve treatment includes making buprenorphine more accessible, developing on-demand treatment, and increasing treatment capacity so it’s available when and where someone is ready.

Finally to reduce health and harm the task force suggests distributing more naloxone kits, a heroin overdose antidote, and providing more training for providers, first responders and officers, and creating a three-year pilot project for two safe consumption sites.

In March elected officials urged the task force not to wait on actions that could save lives. The county already launched a pilot project offering rapid access to buprenorphine at King County’s Downtown Public Health Needle Exchange. 500 naloxone kits were distributed in March 2016. Since then 1,000 more have been provided. Earlier this month the Board of Health approved creating two safe injection sites — one in Seattle and one in greater King County.

No safe consumption sites currently exist in the U.S., but Murray has visited sites in Vancouver BC. The sites target users who inject and provide low-threshold access to a supervised space to consume pre-obtained illicit drugs, clean equipment, emergency care in the case of overdoses, as well as referrals to health care and drug treatment services.

CHS explored the possibility of a safe consumption site on Capitol Hill last year after the neighborhood was dubbed an overdose hub by researchers and experts. The Capitol Hill Community Council has endorsed safe consumption sites.

In its most recent report (PDF), the UW Alcohol and Drub Abuse Institute said heroin has been the most common drug in county overdose deaths for two years running. 132 people OD’d on heroin in King County in 2015.

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10 thoughts on “Seattle, county move forward in fight against heroin deaths

  1. Part of a “safe consumption site” is to “refer” people to health care and drug treatment services, but exactly what does this entail? If it’s just handing out a pamphlet (as I suspect), then this is not going to be very effective. But if a trained professional is available to 1:1 counsel as many people as possible, such sites will be far more valuable in making a dent in the heroin epidemic.

  2. So, this saves lives, and in the moment, doesn’t acknowledge the user is doing something illegal. But, I am guessing your run-of-the-mill drug addict doesn’t have much of an income…so how did they procure the drugs? Theft? Selling a stolen bike? Mugging someone?

  3. As a research fellow, I visited safe injection sites in Switzerland and the Netherlands. These can work! A handful of European countries had these as early as the 80s and both Canada and Australia have at least one site each.

    Yes, we need to ensure that the counseling is targeted, professional and effective, but giving people a safe, clean environment to inject is one step in reducing both opioid overdoses and the transmission of HIV, Hepatitis C, etc.

    One fact I learned in Switzerland, where the government even provides a sub-set of users with the actual heroin to use, is that SOME heroin users can be functional members of society, as long as they can get their fix. I don’t think we’ll ever get to that point, but having witnessed a friend go through the downward spiral of heroin addiction, I strongly support any additional resources to help people inject in a safe, clean environment and, hopefully, access services to break their dependency. My friend finally broke free and has been clean 4 years. It’s a long and painful road, but society should try and help addicts along their way to recovery.

  4. I have been responding to, and treating heroin OD patients in Seattle for 24 years now. The “safe injection sites” are going to be a bad deal for Seattle.

    – More addicts will move into Seattle because of the tolerance displayed by our overly liberal government (I am a liberal; they are left of left).

    – Overdose deaths will increase, because of the influx of heroin addicts. The majority of heroin use (over 90% based on Vancouver’s ‘safe injection’ site history) will occur out in the streets.

    – There needs to be available treatment for addicts when they bottom-out and are ready to accept treatment. Currently, there are not enough available inpatient beds; the wait is weeks long. Don’t waste money on “safe injection site(s)” until we fund/develop enough available inpatient treatment options.

    – Heroin is illegal. The increased number of heroin addicts will lead to increased property crime in Seattle as addicts seek to fund their addiction.

    Needle exchanges are good. Naloxone availability is good. Lack of inpatient treatment beds is bad. Safe injection sites are a feel good bandage that will lead to increased numbers of heroin addicts in Seattle- with more addicts comes more property crime & more overdose deaths.

    • Thanks for this comment. While I support the idea of safe injection sites, I have also wondered if we’re basically just hanging a giant welcome sign at the city limits for every opiate-injecting drug user out there. This has direct implications for the homeless/camping/trash crisis in our city. I don’t know if that’s a solid enough reason *not* to proceed, but it should be considered.

    • I thank you also for your insightful comment. Seattle already has a huge welcome mat out for the homeless, due to our tolerant attitude and many services for that population. The problem will only get worse if we offer safe injection sites, unless they emphasize immediate drug treatment and housing, which is probably not going to happen.

    • So let’s just continue to ignore the problem and it’ll solve itself, right? That’s been working real swell and now we have an epidemic.

      Let’s at least give the program a freakin’ chance before we declare it a failure. Vancouver’s Insite has shown initial success, so much that even their Conservative government, who tried hand over fist to shut it down, has slightly backed off (not completely, however).

      Remember, the only things that go away when you ignore them are your spouse and your teeth.

  5. 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.
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