SEATTLE - Seattle is moving ahead with plans to open at least one safe injection site where drug users can use heroin and other drugs with medically trained staff on hand and hopefully help seek treatment.
But there is still a pending legal battle over I-27, the initiative that would ban safe injection sites in King County. Though it won’t be on the November ballot, those behind the proposal are working behind the scenes to make sure it gets in front of voters.
Safe King County gathered approximately 50,000 signatures needed to put I-27 on the ballot nearly a year ago to allow voters in King County to have the final say on whether they wanted to go along with a plan which, at the time, was to open two of the sites in King County, one in Seattle and another elsewhere in the county.
But a week later, the newly formed nonprofit Protect Public Health and the City of Seattle sued to block the initiative from going to the ballot, arguing it went beyond the scope of the initiative process because under state law, authority over public health issues falls to the King County Council and King County Board of Health. By October 2017, a King County judge agreed with that argument and blocked I-27 from going to voters.
Initiative organizer Joshua Freed immediately appealed to the state Supreme Court, which announced in May 2018 it would hear the case. Freed says it won’t be in time to make it to the November ballot should they win the appeal.
“I don’t think that was going to happen,” Freed said. “I think we’ll most likely be on the following February ballot. Just because the Supreme Court’s docket was full all the way until July and then they go to recess, so that won’t happen during the summer. The earliest would be September or October so that they could hear our case, which by that point our ballots are already printed. That may have been strategic just to push things off for a little bit because it’s an election year for a lot of the Supreme Court justices.”
Before they get their day in front of the state Supreme Court, Freed says they’re busy raising money for the legal battle.
Freed says they didn’t expect to face this kind of expensive legal fight merely to get an initiative on the ballot, but he’s confident they’ll get this to the voters once they have their day in court.
“It really has moved beyond the conversation of just heroin injection sites, the legality of it, and the harm that it actually does to heroin users,” Free said. “It’s now moved to the point that a judge told the voters that they don’t have a right to participate in the initiative process when it comes to public health issues.”
Freed said that makes this a constitutional fight as well.
“Both the U.S. Constitution and the state Constitution has voters as ‘we the people.’ So when a judge tries to take away our voting rights — from 1.3 million voters in King County — we know that it is our right defense to go to the Supreme Court. Our hope is that those justices are going to review the Constitution in a way that we review the Constitution and say that it is the people’s government and they have the right to participate in public health issues.”
Freed said history is on their side because Washington voters have already decided several public health issues through the initiative process.
“Abortion was legalized through initiative in Washington state,’ Freed pointed out. “Marijuana was legalized by initiative in Washington state, certainly a public health issue. … There have been many other public health issues that have been brought forward and voted on by the voters through the initiative process and put into law.”
But Seattle and Protect Public Health won an argument in the lower court that allowing voters to decide public health issues could have a dangerous impact on future public health policy for things like mandatory vaccinations and quarantines.
The question remains whether voters have the right to decide public health issues.
Since I-27 first started gathering signatures, a growing number of cities and counties have preemptively banned these sites. It has left Seattle moving ahead on its own to try to open one site. During a Seattle City Council meeting last week, some council members backed the idea of buying a mobile RV that could serve as a fixed location for the site if they couldn’t find a building to use. The most popular neighborhood for the site seems to be Capitol Hill, but that’s not a done deal yet. For now, the city hopes to open a site by the end of 2018.
And I-27, should it win its appeal, likely won’t end up on a ballot until February at the earliest.
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