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‘Dozens and dozens’ of underground safe injection sites in Seattle

A mural encourages people to pick up the overdose antidote Narcan at a nearby "safe injection site" on the east side of downtown Vancouver, Canada. (AP Photo/Jeremy Hainsworth)

Whether you are in favor of safe injection sites, or vehemently oppose them in Seattle, there is one thing you should be aware of — they are already in the city. And there are a lot of them.

They are called many names — shooting galleries, safer consumption sites, overdose prevention sites. Shilo Jama likes to call them drug users’ safe spaces. He manages a needle exchange in Seattle’s University District — which is not affiliated with an underground injection site. But Jama is familiar with the sites and recently wrote about the issue in Filter Magazine. He tells KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross that Seattle already has a vast array of underground safe injection sites.

“I wrote about three different places in Seattle,” Jama said. “Just to be clear, there are dozens and dozens and dozens of them.”

“They are completely illegal, there’s no organization sponsoring them,” he said. “They are citizens of Seattle who have created spaces so people who already were using in those areas had a place to go.”

Seattle and King County officials have planned to establish two government-run safe injection sites — one in Seattle, and another in the county. It is unclear where they will be located. Seattle last considered a mobile van option. Jama argued that even if the city gets one such site, more culturally competent locations will continue to thrive in the area as they have been under the radar.

Underground safe injection sites

Jama said there are many underground safe injection sites operating in and around Seattle — in houses out in the suburbs around the city; a mobile van; even ones located under bridges. Jama revealed the inner workings of three groups in his article — Group A, Group B, and Group C. He also said they are among the more organized locations within Seattle.

Group A has about 20 to 30 volunteers in a rented house. Users inject around a stainless steel crescent table with a staff member in the middle who can assist them. Bedrooms are smoke rooms. Jama writes that “their typical clientele seemed to be a middle-class, stable drug users, with lots of people coming on their lunch break and after work.”

Group B is operated by five to six people in an apartment run like a speakeasy — you have to know a password. It also has a stainless steel table. This group tends to serve lower class users and people off the street. No smoking is allowed.

Group C is run below a small storefront. Users consume drugs in a darkly lit area with chairs and tables. A La-Z-Boy chair is in the middle where one person can monitor activity. Jama said this location serves about 50 people a week and has a jovial barbershop feel to it.

He says that all locations have naloxone/Narcan on site to treat overdoses, as well as other supplies.

“I don’t see them as dangerous, there has been no one who has died in them,” Jama said. “I understand people with morality (issues), but our job — people who work in harm reduction — our job is to mitigate as many deaths and harms as possible. Because people will use drugs maybe for a year or two, maybe a weekend, or multiple years, but we still don’t want them to get HIV, Hepatitis C, or die of an overdose.”

“You’re enabling people to be safe, you’re enabling people to not die,” he said. “By using a safe consumption room, you are around doctors, you are around support staff, you are absolutely not going to die.”

Jama likens the safe injection site debate to the same arguments expressed when needle exchanges first began. He has operated the University District exchange for years and says the service doesn’t enable drug users.

“People can talk about morality all they want, but people are dying,” Jama said. “While we talk, people are going to die. Someone will likely die today of a heroin overdose while we speak about this … we are not normalizing it … with needle exchanges people accused them of enabling people. They have never shown a study showing one needle exchange enabling people to use drugs. All they’ve done is make it so people don’t die of AIDS, people won’t get Hep C, or abscesses.”

Jama argued that these sites enable nothing but safety.

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