King County prosecutor endorses safe injection sites for drug users

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King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg endorsed safe injection sites on Thursday.

Safe injection sites are designated clinics where addicts can shoot up legally. 

Satterberg said that unlike the response to crack cocaine in the 80s and 90s, “I believe that the criminal justice system should not take a primary role, and that instead we should follow the lead of public health professionals.”

Key developments: 

  • Heroin crisis task force recommended 2 injections sites last year
  • A councilwoman suggested Belltown and Lake City 
  • Proponents said it could say taxpayers millions in crisis services 
  • Opponents said a consumption site condones drug use. 
  • Washington state senator introduced bill banning injection sites in state. 
  • Now, the King County prosecutor endorsed safe injection sites. 

The Board of Health approved two pilot safe injection sites Thursday, as part of a group of recommendations from the King County Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force that it also approved.

People on both sides of the issue voiced their opinion before the vote.

“Quit sugar coating, quit wordsmithing it, and don’t do it,” Seattle resident Jennifer Aspelund said.

Another woman told the Board that as a city, “We're smart, we do the right thing, and we don't let our fears overcome what we know is the right thing to do.”

“If we have a site where they can not only safely consume their injections, but [we] also provide resources, provide treatment, that's the key part of this,” board member and King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles.

Eric Seitz is a former heroin addict. He once used Vancouver's safe injection site-- the only one in North America. KIRO 7 visited the clinic in February of last year.

“I felt like people weren’t going to judge me either way,” he said. “They were just trying to keep me alive… long enough so that I could actually make a self-determined decision that I wanted to stop.”

KIRO 7 reported in November how Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw discussed possible locations for safe injection sites in Seattle.

“Maybe one down here and one in North Seattle as an example, because we do have the facilities and the place-- one in Belltown, one in Lake City,” she said then.

Today KIRO 7 asked, “So to be clear, are you looking at putting these safe injection sites in Belltown and in Lake City?”

“I don’t think we know yet,” she said. “I think what I was really interested in was using the public health clinic that we’ve got—so you’re not trying to reconstruct something new. But that’s to get people inside and to get the treatment that they need. Now, whether we do a safe injection site there or elsewhere is still an unknown.”

Bagshaw said they were examples of buildings they could use.

“We’ve got public health clinics around the county,” she said, “and I think it’s smart that we use the facilities and the manpower, the womanpower, that we have on site, having trained nurses, trained doctors.”

She stressed safe injection sites are just part of the solution, which includes prevention and education. As for what’s next, Bagshaw said the Seattle city council does not need to vote; the city can simply move forward on recommendations from task force. It’s up to its members to come up with a plan for public engagement when it comes to locations and cost.

Here’s a timeline of how the discussion behind Seattle becoming the first U.S. city with sites for heroin users to safely use drugs.

Jan. 17, 2019: Washington state senator introduces bill banning sites

On Tuesday, a Washington state senator introduced legislation that would ban the creation on heroin injection sites in Washington cities.

Sen. Mark Miloscia wrote in a news release on Tuesday that he introduced a bill to ban such sites.

“We must stop the push for decriminalization of drugs,” said Miloscia, R-Federal Way. “Standing idly by while addicts abuse illegal drugs is not compassionate, and it does not solve the problem.”

The clinic manager of the site at Vancouver told KIRO 7 News that the overdose death rate in the area around Insite has dropped 35 percent. But Miloscia believes the safe-injection site is a failure. 

“We must focus our time, money and resources on treatment options that get people off illegal drugs, not encourage drug abuse," he said.

November 2016: Where overdoses are happening and possible site locations 

The King County Heroin Crisis Task Force recommended at least two safe injection sites for drug users last year. Seattle City Councilwoman Sally Bagshaw volunteered Seattle for two sites: one in Belltown and one in Lake City.

Proponents of a "safe consumption site" point to a similar housing operation in Seattle, where 75 alcoholics can drink in their rooms and have access to on-site treatment services. Studies show the operation saved taxpayers millions in housing and crisis services annually and decreased alcohol consumption in residents.

In Seattle, public overdoses are on the rise. Supporters say so-called safe injection sites are a way to combat the overdoses. In a recent KIRO 7 News investigative report, we mapped out where overdosing cases happen.  Here’s a 2016 map.

Overdoses are overloading Seattle Fire and diverting crews from other emergencies.  Each call costs at least two-thousand-dollars, costing taxpayers millions since 2014. 

September 2016: King County Heroin Crisis Task Force recommends 2 injection sites

The King County Heroin Crisis Task Force is recommending at least two safe injection sites for drug users: one located within Seattle and one outside city limits.

They announced the recommendation with a proposed number of locations in a news conference on Thursday.

“These sites will provide individuals with opiod use disorder a portal to return to healthy lives by reducing overdoses and preventing infections like Hep B & C  HIV,” said Jeff Duchin, a health officer with Public Health of Seattle & King County.

Read full story here.

August 2016: Local leaders take big step toward ‘safe consumption site' for addicts

A majority of people on King County heroin’s task force support the idea of a safe consumption site.

Proponents of a "safe consumption site" point to a similar housing operation in Seattle, where 75 alcoholics can drink in their rooms and have access to on-site treatment services. Studies show the operation saved taxpayers millions in housing and crisis services annually and decreased alcohol consumption in residents.

Read full story here.

February 2016: Seattle considering ‘safe places' for addicts to shoot up

KIRO 7 News reported in February that Seattle could be the first city in the U.S. to allow safe consumption sites, where people with drug addiction can safely use drugs under medical supervision.

"I've done a lot of work looking at where are people dying of drug overdoses," said Dr. Caleb Banta-Green, a University of Washington drug researcher.  "It's all across King County.  It's not just downtown."

Dr. Banta-Green says the use of illegal drugs like heroin has become a public health crisis.

"I do think we have to do something," he said.  "It's really quite striking."

That something, say drug prevention activists, should be safe injection or consumption sites, like in Vancouver, British Columbia, where users take drugs in a clinic without risking arrest.

Opponents say a consumption site condones drug use.

Read full story here.

So what would a consumption site look like?

KIRO 7 News went to Vancouver to see how the injection site operated and if a King County site would run similarly.

When a KIRO 7 News crew was in Vancouver, we saw people injecting on the street -- they told us because of the wait to get a booth.

The clinic does not give users drugs; it provides free, clean supplies. 

“People often go with a cooker, alcohol, need a tie for your arm, a bit of water,” clinic manager Andy Day told KIRO 7 News.

>> Read our Q&A: How would an injection site operate in Seattle?

There is a free clinic on East Hastings Street—the poorest area in Canada—where drug users can inject themselves under the watchful eye of medical professionals.
© 2017 Cox Media Group.

Staff members at the clinic refer to people who seek help as clients. Clients take their supplies to one of 13 booths fitted with mirrors and inject themselves under the watchful eyes of health care professionals. The booths are almost always full.

Since opening in 2003, Day says the overdose death rate in the area around Insite has dropped 35 percent, and saving addicts in the clinic costs three million taxpayer dollars a year. 
 
Day says that's cheaper than treating them in the hospital for the drugs, or diseases contracted because of the drugs.

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