At the end of January, King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced they were moving forward with all of the Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force recommendations to battle the heroin epidemic at a local level, including launching two safe consumption sites.
Officials are currently gathering data and information and meeting with communities to determine where the two sites, one slated for Seattle and one for greater King County, should be located.
Brad Finegood, assistant division director at King County Behavioral Health and Recovery Division, told CHS the process is in its “infancy.”
“There are so many things to undertake in an effort like this where A) there’s none in the U.S. and B) there’s so many community groups to discuss it with,” Finegood said.
Finegood said those working on the consumption sites are considering data such as where overdoses are occurring.
“You want to locate it where it’s going to have the most public health impact,” he said.
A lot of Finegood’s work right now is squashing rumors about locations for the sites.
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.
Finegood told CHS the county doesn’t have a target date for when the two proposed sites will be operating.
While there is an urgency to getting the sites operating, the county also wants to have sites that work well.
“This would be the first in the country, so we want to make sure we do it right,” Finegood said.
Patricia Sully, an attorney with the Public Defender Association working with VOCAL Washington, said the organization wants to ensure the county moves forward with the sites and all of the recommendations, but ensure they implement them well.
The sites won’t just provide people with a safe place to use, they will also help people get assistance with fighting addiction, and help with finding housing and job training. In its report because the sites would provide more than a place to consume heroin the task force refers to the proposed pilot sites as Community Health Engagement Locations.
Along with looking at the data, Finegood said the county is also having a lot of community conversations, talking with people both for and against the sites, and standing up for prevention efforts.
VOCAL, which set up a mock safe consumption site on Capitol Hill and participated in the task force, along with the Capitol Hill Community Council and Seattle First Baptist Church is continuing its education about safe or supervised consumption sites. On March 22 at the church at 1111 Harvard Ave, the groups are holding a screening of the documentary “Everywhere But Safe,” which “explores public drug use, and the role harm reduction and supervised consumption spaces can play in saving lives.”
Following the film, a panel will discuss harm reduction and safe consumption sites. Panel members include: Thea Oliphant-Wells, a recovering opiate user, David Sapienza, director of addictions medicine at the Seattle Indian Health Board, Karen Hartfield, program manager for HIV/STD at Public Health — Seattle & King County, Michael Roberts, founder of Amber’s HOPE, Kris Nyrop, the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion national support director at the Public Defender Association, Lisa Etter Carlson, cofounder of the Aurora Commons.
Wednesday’s event is just one of many VOCAL has been organizing for about 18 months.
The heroin epidemic has affected many, including the church where the event is being held — two people have fatally overdosed right outside its doors, Sully told CHS.
“It’s not a theoretical issue,” she said, many have struggled with addiction themselves or have family or friends who have.
The recommended safe consumption sites have sparked controversy and some including state Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, are pushing against it. His bill to prevent drug consumption sites passed the Senate and is now in the House Health Care & Wellness Committee.
“We certainly think that it’s disappointing and a shame that a state senator would disregard the science and evidence for safe consumption spaces,” Sully said but doesn’t expect the bill to get out of the House.
In the meantime, VOCAL is planning another series of public events. The hope is to bring representatives of Vancouver, British Columbia’s supervised injection site, Insite, as well as from other similar sites in Europe to learn about different models.
The founders of Insite — a non-governmental organization which operates a sanctioned and supervised space where heroin users can obtain clean needles, shoot up in a safe environment, and get connected to health and drug detox services —came to Capitol Hill last spring to discuss the facilities.
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.