It has been nearly two months since local elected leaders announced the formation of a King County Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force to address the regional and national heroin epidemic, and Seattle leaders have talked of establishing safe consumption sites for drug users around the city. Could Capitol Hill — a neighborhood that experiences a high number of drug overdoses — get a safe consumption site?
Safe consumption sites, which would be a first for Seattle — let alone the United States — may end up getting the green light from county’s task force. Brad Finegood, co-chair of the heroin task force and assistant division director of the King County Behavioral Health and Recovery Division, told CHS that the task force is considering safe consumption spaces and including them in their final set of recommendations that they will present to regional leaders later this year. The task force is made up law enforcement, representatives from the criminal justice system, public health and addiction experts, as well as homeless and drug policy reform advocates.
“There’s no other such facility that’s sanctioned and operating [in the U.S.],” said Finegood. “It’s definitely something that we are trying to be thorough in vetting.”
While alien to the United States, supervised drug consumption sites have a three-decade long history in other nations. The Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland opened what were then dubbed “Drug Consumption Rooms” or DCRs, back in the 80s and 90s to address public order issues associated with open-air drug use by providing addicts and users (mostly targeting users who inject) with low-threshold access to a supervised space to consume pre-obtained illicit drugs, clean equipment, emergency care in the case of overdoses (namely application of the heroin overdose antidote, Naloxone), and referrals to healthcare and drug treatment services if desired by the user. DCRs served as a public health response intending to prevent overdose deaths, reduce disease transmission, and connect addicts with health and drug treatment services. Spain, Norway have since then joined the pack and opened their own DCRs (a safe injection site has also opened in Sydney, Australia), and last year, France moved forward with opening pilot DCR’s in three cities.
“There is no evidence to suggest that the availability of safer injecting facilities increases drug use or frequency of injecting. These services facilitate rather than delay treatment entry and do not result in higher rates of local drug-related crime,” a summary report of DCR implementation in Europe by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction reads.
Closer to home in Vancouver, Canada, health workers opened Insite — North America’s first safe injection site — in the city’s Downtown Eastside neighborhood back in 2003 to address concentrated public drug use and high HIV infection rates with a harm-reduction, public health-minded approach. And, after more than a decade in operation and more than 30 independent studies on the impacts of Insite, the research indicates that fatal overdoses in the neighborhood went down along with drug-related crime and public order in the neighborhood improved. Use of HIV-risk behaviors like syringe sharing declined alongside neighborhood HIV infection rates, and intake at local drug detox treatment facilities went up, and there was no noticeably increase in drug use or drug trafficking in the area.
In addition, Insite has never lost a user to an overdose on its premises since its founding despite experiencing around thirty overdoses per month.
“They [Insite] haven’t had any overdose deaths, and that’s amazing,” said Finegood.
“The public health arguments are absolutely irrefutable,” said Kris Nyrop, national support director for the Law Enforcement Diversion Program (otherwise known as L.E.A.D), Public Defender Association drug addiction expert, and safe consumption proponent.
Outside of the county’s official heroin task force, most everyone is just starting to dip their toes in the issue. But drug policy reform advocates have been ramping up their calls for safe consumption sites. Last month, Vocal-WA, a group of grassroots activists who are promoting safe consumption sites, brought the founders of the Insite to Seattle to give presentations around the city (including one to city council) on the project and its impact. Vocal-WA held a rally calling for safe consumption sites that also allow for smoking.
The Capitol Hill Community Council has endorsed safe consumption sites and plans to support Vocal-WA’s lobbying efforts, in addition to conducting outreach with other neighborhood councils.
“We’ve heard lots of anecdotes about public drug consumption [in Capitol Hill], people are finding needles on the ground,” said Zachary Pullin, president of the council. Continue reading