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Supreme Court considers initiative controversy around safe injection sites

Injection cubicles at Sydney's Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Sydney, Australia. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft, File)

Should voters get to weigh in on whether they want to ban safe injection sites in King County? That’s the question now before Washington’s Supreme Court as it considers an appeal over Initiative 27.

The group Safe King County gathered nearly 75,000 signatures to put I-27 on the ballot nearly a year ago. It would give voters the final say on whether they wanted to go along with a plan to open safe injection sites in the county, or ban them.

But the newly formed non-profit 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. They argued that under state law, authority over public health issues falls to the county council and county board of health. Last October, a King County judge agreed and blocked the initiative from going to voters.

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I-27 organizer Joshua Freed immediately appealed to the state Supreme Court. That hearing was Tuesday morning.

Most of the arguments during Tuesday’s hearing were very technical and related to whether this was a policy issue or a budget issue. Justice Debra Stephens and others on the court wanted to know how much authority the Seattle-King County Public Health has versus the county council when it comes to public health issues.

“What if the Board of Health said it’s clearly a public health crisis, smoking kills a lot of people. So, if they said ‘no smoking in King County,’ is that within their purview? They can make that decision and all King County can do is decide to fund it or not,” Stephens asked.

The short answer from the lawyer arguing to keep I-27 off the ballot for Protect Public Health was: nobody has ever addressed that at the court level yet.

It matters because if the county council has authority to do more than fund the sites, such as ban them, then so do the voters through the initiative process.

I-27 backer Josh Freed and his lawyers took that question, as well as questions from the justices about how soon they’d need to rule to get I-27 on a ballot as a positive sign.

It is not clear when the court will rule. Freed says, if he wins, the earliest he expects I-27 to go to voters is special February ballot.

Arguments around safe injection sites

Freed says the argument from the other side doesn’t hold up because multiple public health issues in our state have been decided through the initiative process, including abortion and legalized marijuana. He’s looking forward to making his case before the state’s high court.

“The initiative process exists to make sure that when we feel, as voters, that the City of Seattle and King County government aren’t making decisions we agree with, through the initiative process we gather signatures and we can place important issues on the ballot,” Freed said.

“Our perspective is, City of Seattle and King County government went way too far by saying they wanted to legalize heroin use and possession through the form of heroin injection sites,” he said. “We, as the voters, said overwhelmingly ‘we don’t agree,’ so we want to have a vote through initiatives to make sure it’s very clear that this already illegal activity stays illegal.”

The city, public health officials, and other supporters argue the sites will save lives by providing a safe space for drug users to consume drugs, with trained medical personnel on hand in case of overdose, as well staff who can funnel willing addicts to treatment options.

But critics, including Freed, say the sites are illegal and only enable drug users. He says the biggest concern is what happens right outside the sites, as he says he witnessed when his visited existing safe injection sites in Vancouver, B.C., which the proposed Seattle sites are modeled after.

“The streets around the heroin injection site are places where the heroin dealers are and a lot of prostitution is going on, and broken lives are literally laying on the streets,” Freed said.

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But he says the question before the Supreme Court is about protecting the initiative process, not whether safe injection sites should, or should not, be allowed.

Freed says he’s encouraged by the state Supreme Court’s recent ruling to send police accountability measure I-940 to the ballot, which protected the initiative process. He hopes that’s a positive sign for his case.

If the court sides against Freed and Safe King County, Freed says that opens the door to legal challenges for every public health issue passed by initiative process.

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