Options vanishing for second King County safe injection site

When Seattle and King County health officials proposed two safe injection sites for the region to reduce the rising number of drug overdoses, it was immediately obvious that one would be in Seattle. The city, after all, leads the region in overdose deaths and it has both the existing health services and political will to make a new site practical and possible.

But finding a location for the proposed second site is proving difficult. Kent and Renton officials this week will discuss a local ordinance to ban safe injection/safe consumption sites — joining Bellevue, Federal Way, Auburn as local cities which have recently passed legislation to ban the sites within city limits. And because the King County Council in July agreed to not put the second supervised site in any city where it was opposed by city officials, options have narrowed.

It wasn’t an accident that these particular cities have passed legislation to prevent the safe injection sites; Following Seattle, they all rank in the top six in overdose deaths in King County. After Seattle, Auburn tops the list with 216 overdose deaths during the past 16 years followed by Kent (210), Renton (191), Federal Way (162) and Bellevue (117).

Caleb Banta-Green, a professor and drug-abuse researcher at the University of Washington, said it's unfortunate that the local cities are preempting the safe consumption sites. Research has shown that the sites reduce a city's overdose problems, he said, and don't make it worse.

“The need is clearly there,” he said. “And I would be very surprised if one of these is put in a place and we saw horrible outcomes — because we haven’t seen horrible outcomes in the dozens of other facilities that have been researched around the world.”

Bellevue Mayor John Stokes, who led the city’s recent effort to ban the sites, said he isn’t convinced that data proves safe injection sites help the opioid problem. And he doesn’t think that resistance to hosting a site means that city officials don’t care. “It doesn’t mean we’re not concerned. We’re not heartless,” he said in a recent council meeting.

Last January, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and County Executive Dow Constantine proposed two safe-injection/safe-consumption sites for King County as a way to combat the growing number of overdose deaths in the city and county. If established, the sites would be the first two officially sanctioned consumption sites in the nation.

But while the Seattle site appears to be moving ahead, finding another location is proving problematic. Even within the locals cities that have endured a spike in overdoses, there isn't the civic desire to respond with an injection and intervention center. In Vancouver, B.C. the supervised injection sites have greatly reduced the overdose death numbers and HIV infection rates while not having a significant impact on overall addition rates.

Under the criteria set by the Seattle and King County Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force, the location for the second site should be where the need is acute the population is sufficient and where other collateral services already exist. Also, the sites need to be where they can serve the addicted populations at all hours.

“People use multiple times every single day,” said Caleb-Green who is on the task force. “It isn’t like I am going to go out for beers with my friends on Saturday night. It needs to be open many hours on most days.”

And while the five suburban cities at the top of the overdose list fit the criteria, all but one have made it clear they don't want to be in the running. And it might not matter anyway — even in Seattle. The county elections department is currently verifying signatures on I-27, a ballot measure to ban safe injection sites throughout the county. Backed by a group called Safe King County, the measure, if it qualifies, could end up on the February ballot.

Banta-Green said it would be a shame to miss an opportunity to take a vital step toward solving the problem of overdose deaths and opioid addiction. The sites are the perfect want to find and reach the people who need treatment, he argues. And he doesn’t agree with those who say that safe consumption sites enable addiction.

“Saying that these sites enable continuing drug use is like saying clean pint glasses enable alcoholism.”

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