Pubdate: Tue, 05 Apr 2016
Source: Seattle Times (WA)
Copyright: 2016 The Seattle Times Company
Author: Daniel Beekman


Safety Push

Local officials are showing interest in making Seattle the first U.S. 
city to offer a medically supervised site for drug use, which 
advocates say could reduce overdose deaths, disease transmission and 
discarded needles on the ground.

Seattle could become the first city in the U.S. with a public site 
where users can inject and smoke hard drugs under medical supervision.

One local group plans to open a bare-bones safe-consumption site on a 
shoestring budget as soon as possible, while another group has 
launched an awareness campaign to build support among politicians and 

Proponents say one or more sites could reduce overdose deaths, HIV 
and hepatitis C transmissions and the number of used needles that 
litter sidewalks and alleys.

They say the sites would keep drug users alive long enough to seek 
treatment and give people on the margins of society a means to access help.

The proponents point to Insite, a 13-year-old safe-injection site in 
Vancouver, B.C., where no overdose deaths have occurred. Founder Liz 
Evans spoke about the site to the Seattle City Council's 
public-health committee last month.

Some council members were enthusiastic, and Mayor Ed Murray says he 
wants to learn more. King County Sheriff John Urquhart says he's 
leaning toward backing the idea of a safe-consumption site.

"I was a narcotics detective, so I'm still trying to wrap my head 
around this," Urquhart said. "But the more I hear, the more open I am 
to the possibility."

The People's Harm Reduction Alliance, which has run a needle exchange 
in the University District for decades, is the group pushing to open 
a safe-consumption site right away. Director Shilo Murphy says the 
time for talking is over.

"This isn't a matter of if - this is a matter of when," he said. "We 
need to move ahead as fast as we can because this is a crisis, 
because people are dying."

Murphy says his group has raised about $20,000 and is looking for a 
landlord. He says a small storefront or shipping container would 
allow room for four to eight people to inject or smoke, along with 
two volunteers, including a nurse.

Murphy says his group began planning a site more than two years ago, 
when Mike McGinn was mayor and was talking about ending the "war on drugs."

"We were like, 'This is the right time to strike,' " Murphy said. "We 
went to work."

Since then, heroin has become an even more serious problem. In 2014, 
deaths from heroin overdoses in King County reached 156, up from 99 
in 2013 and 49 in 2009.

Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine on March 1 convened 
a heroin-addiction task force, charging it with finding ways to 
expand treatment.

The task force may consider recommending one or more safe-consumption 
sites for Seattle. To buoy that possibility, VOCAL-WA, a grass-roots 
group helping people affected by drug laws and homelessness, 
organized public panels last month at the University of Washington, 
Seattle University and the Capitol Hill Community Council. Evans, 
from Vancouver, took part in all three talks.

Dozens of peer-reviewed studies show the Vancouver, B.C., site has 
saved lives, reduced disease transmission and promoted entry into 
addiction treatment.

"There have been overdoses, but nobody has died. That's a big deal," 
said Caleb Banta-Green, researcher with the UW's Alcohol and Drug 
Abuse Institute.

The death rate among heroin users is about one in 100 per year, he said.

In Vancouver, there was opposition from people who said Insite would 
boost drug use and enable addiction. When proponents won a court 
battle and then began serving users, local perceptions started to 
change, Evan says.

Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, who chairs the committee Evans met with, 
stopped short of endorsing safe-consumption sites outright. But 
Bagshaw said she's intrigued. Councilmembers Debora Juarez, M. Lorena 
Gonzalez, Kshama Sawant and Mike O'Brien all signaled they're supportive.

The Capitol Hill Community Council is on board with the idea, says 
Jesse Perrin, an officer with that group who separately works as an 
aide to O'Brien.

"We hear about used needles in parks, in alleys. Having this would 
increase the health and well-being of people using and people not 
using," Perrin said, adding that his group would welcome a site on 
Capitol Hill. "Our plan is to engage every neighborhood council in 
Seattle for a collective voice on this."

There are questions about how law enforcement would handle a 
safe-consumption site in Seattle. Drugs like heroin and cocaine would 
remain illegal. Insite has a scientific research exemption that 
covers injected drugs only.

Murphy says he would open a site without permission. He doubts local 
leaders would risk their progressive bona fides by coming down hard 
on his work.

Patricia Sully, a staff attorney with the Public Defender Association 
who works with VOCAL-WA, noted Washington has made marijuana legal on its own.

"We already live in a state where our law contravenes federal law," 
Sully said. "There are reasons to be hopeful we wouldn't see federal 

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg says he is keeping an open mind 
after speaking with Vancouver police who credit Insite with saving 
lives. But Satterberg is concerned about concentrations of drug 
users, buyers and sellers.

"Nobody would want that on their block," he said in a statement. "I 
would encourage us to think instead of ... a number of health clinics 
throughout the region, or even as a mobile clinic, instead of one 
large single site."

Proponents agree a multiple-site approach could work better for 
Seattle because drug activity is more dispersed than in Vancouver, 
occurring widely in downtown, Belltown, the University District, 
Ballard and on Capitol Hill.

Urquhart says he'll defer to Seattle officials: If city leaders want 
a site, his deputies won't arrest people coming and going from it, 
the sheriff said.

Why is the safe-consumption idea suddenly gaining momentum in 
Seattle? Banta-Green, from the UW's alcohol and drug institute, 
thinks it may have something to do with more visible drug use.

"I've been counting dead people a long time," he said. "Nobody really 
cared. But it's so in-your-face now. You see people injecting in 
public. I hope we're talking about this because we value lives, not 
because we want to hide the problem."

Gretchen Taylor, a 69year-old Magnolia resident who volunteers with 
the Neighborhood Safety Alliance, sat through Evans' presentation to 
Bagshaw's committee. Taylor's group has criticized the city's 
handling of public drug use, calling for tougher measures.

But she likely would support a safe-consumption site. Taylor says she 
has an adult child who's been a heroin user for many years.

"I think this would be wise, as long as it's part of a more 
comprehensive strategy," she said.

Banta-Green says safe-consumption sites could work in Seattle. 
Eighty-seven percent of Public Health - Seattle & King County 
needle-exchange users expressed interest in a safe-injection site, a 
2013 study by UW graduate student Derek Low found.

Sidney Wilson, a 59-yearold member of VOCAL-WA who said he stopped 
using cocaine in 2002, says such sites would "be a blessing" for 
people on the street.

"With that, you have peace of mind," he said. "You don't have to 
worry about rushing to inject your drugs. You're not looking over 
your shoulder for the police. You don't have to worry about getting 
beat up and robbed or overdosing."

One or more safe-consumption sites wouldn't result in every user 
seeking treatment. Banta-Green believes easier access to aids like 
Methadone and Buprenorphine is a more important goal.

"But I imagine it would give them some encouragement," Wilson said. 
"It would be there in the back of their mind, like a seed you plant 
and let it grow."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom