Pubdate: Tue, 08 Mar 2016
Source: Seattle Times (WA)
Copyright: 2016 The Seattle Times Company
Author: Jonathan Martin


The next new idea in drug policy reform is a good idea, writes 
columnist Jonathan Martin

The Seattle area is the nation's incubator for the anti-war on drugs.

Well before pot became legal, the nation's first needle exchange 
opened in these parts in 1988. The 1811 Eastlake housing project, 
which allows alcoholics to keep drinking, helped make Seattle's 
"Housing First" model official federal policy. And a Seattle police 
social-services diversion for low-level drug dealers is being copied 
around the country.

The next big idea is called a safe-injection site. It's going to 
become news in the next few months as we consider opening the first 
facility in the U.S. where hard drugs are openly consumed under 
medical supervision.

It is fair to view Seattle's utopian chemistry-set tinkering with 
policy with skepticism. But this idea is a good one, because it will 
save lives.

I saw what a safe injection site looked like on a reporting trip to 
Vancouver, B.C., in 2003. At a sterile, federally licensed clinic in 
that city's massive open-air drug market, I watched a construction 
manager named John inject a speedball of heroin and cocaine under the 
gaze of a nurse, who watched for signs of overdose.

The ideas for that facility and the discussions now under way in King 
County are simple. Treat drug addiction like a public health problem, 
not a criminal justice one. Keep people with addiction alive long 
enough to get treatment. And mitigate the civic consequences, such as 
piles of used needles in the alley.

Research on these sites - there are nearly 100 around the world - 
overwhelmingly shows a drop in overdoses and in infections of HIV and 
Hepatitis C caused by dirty needles. A Canadian cost-benefit analysis 
showed a 5-to-1 return.

Yet the U.S., the world's leading drug market, has been closed. It is 
striking to read the U.S. view in my story from 13 years ago, as a 
George W. Bush administration official doubled-down on the war on 
drugs: "If there is not a criminal-justice sanction, as we've learned 
in the U.S., they won't go to treatment."

How the politics of drugs change. The mayor of Ithaca, N.Y., made 
waves this month by advocating for a site.

A publicly sanctioned room to shoot heroin was unthinkable until the 
nature of the demand changed, and the demographics of addiction 
changed. When prescription opioids and heroin ravage white, 
middle-middle class households, the unthinkable becomes tolerant.

And give credit to reform-minded cops like King County Sheriff John 
Urquhart, who last week said he was open to a safe-injection site. 
Overdose deaths by heroin in King County tripled since 2010, to 156. 
"Guess what? The war on drugs hasn't worked, and we need to try to do 
something different," Urquhart said.

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg told me that he's heard from 
Vancouver police that the city's site is "saving many lives, so I am 
not quick to dismiss the option." Instead, he talked about the tricky 
logistics of opening a site (he prefers scattered or mobile locations 
rather than one big facility).

Fair point. Vancouver's safe-injection site was dropped in the middle 
of an existing drug market, on the Downtown Eastside. Seattle doesn't 
have one central drug zone, and it is easy to imagine a drug market 
cropping up around a safe injection clinic.

But Seattle neighborhoods also are up in arms about the status quo. 
Used needles litter parks from Green Lake to Rainier Beach. Downtown 
Seattle clean up patrols picked up 5,993 needles last year. Give 
users a place to use other than an alley, and the flotsam of addiction recedes.

The Capitol Hill Community Council, after meeting with advocates 
pushing for a site, was receptive. "If folks are injecting, and we 
can provide them a place to inject safely, their safety increases. 
And we're not going to have needles" all over, said council member 
Jesse Perrin. "For us it was a very common-sense solution."

A safe-injection site will be on the agenda of the new heroin task 
force launched last week by King County Executive Dow Constantine and 
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray. Both are open to the idea, but they and the 
task force will want months of vetting.

Meanwhile, the county's big needle exchange provider is moving ahead 
anyway. The People's Harm Reduction Alliance has raised about $20,000 
for a plan to buy three shipping containers and convert them into 
mobile clinics where addicts can inject or smoke drugs. Shilo Murphy, 
the group's director, said he's trying to raise about $20,000 more.

"They can talk about it all they want," said Murphy, referring to the 
task force. "This is going to happen whether they do it or not."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom