King County health officials voted unanimously to implement a pilot program for two safe injection sites where addicts can consume illegal drugs under medical supervision.
“I’m glad we are all recognizing this is an emergency situation, and it is … this is based on best practices and research,” said Auburn Councilmember and Health Board Member Largo Wales.
“We have an emergency and we are ready to take some action,” she said.
The King County Board of Health — comprised of local elected officials — approved a plan submitted by a Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force. That plan is for two safe injection sites where addicts can consume drugs under medical supervision and without fear of consequences from law enforcement. The board will now ask Seattle-King County Public Health to start implementation of the safe injection plan.
The program was first recommended by the task force in October. The plan proposes one safe injection site in Seattle and one outside the city limits in King County.
“Every major city has said this has impacted them, too, and are looking to Seattle and King County as leaders on what to do,” said Seattle Councilmember and Health Board Member Sally Bagshaw.
The Board of Health heard from experts on the issue in the months since October. Dr. Caleb Banta-Green from the University of Washington, for example, told officials there were about seven million syringes traded in at King County needle exchanges last year – that equates to 19,000 each day.
The local proposal is partially based on the Insite program in Vancouver, B.C. It is currently the only safe injection program in North America. Seattle and King County officials visited the Canadian safe injection sites for advice on how to implement such a program locally. The hope is that the safe injection sites will reduce the presence of public drug consumption, and cut down on overdose deaths.
But as local officials consider the safe injection sites, action is being taken at the state level to ban such programs throughout Washington state. Sen. Mark Miloscia has proposed legislation that will ban such safe injection sites in Washington. He argues that they encourage drug use and are a move toward decriminalization of drugs.
Locally, however, KIRO 7 reports that King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg supports the safe injection sites.
Satterberg said at the board meeting 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.”
“I am convinced that the physical site and, more importantly, the personal connections made between users, street outreach workers and medical professionals that can lead to recovery services are a critical element to this new strategy of harm reduction and community health,” he wrote in a message to the Board of Health.
B.C.’s safe injection program and opiate crisis
As Seattle considers modeling after Vancouver’s safe injection program, British Columbia is asking its federal government to declare a national public health emergency after overdose deaths dramatically increased.
The Globe and Mail reports that overdose deaths rose to 914 during 2016. In contrast, there were 510 overdose deaths in 2015. It’s the province’s worst overdose rate in the 30 years it’s been keeping records.
In Seattle, KIRO 7 reports that the Seattle Fire Department has responded to 2,677 overdoses since 2014.
Canadian officials are blaming much of the rise on the inclusion of fentanyl, which is a synthetic opiate that can be cut into heroin. It is cheaper than heroin, yet much more potent, and can lead to overdoses. Fentanyl is suspected to be a factor in the recent surge in overdose deaths in Seattle, as well. What’s worse, is that another synthetic drug, carfentanil, has been found to have been mixed into B.C.’s heroin last fall. It is used as a large animal tranquilizer, and is cut into heroin for the same reasons as fentanyl. Though, it is even more potent.