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Washington Supreme Court nixes ban on safe injection sites


King County’s anti-injection site initiative went beyond the scope of local authority, and therefore had no place on a ballot, according to the Washington State Supreme Court.

“We affirm the superior court. I-27 improperly interferes with the budgetary authority of the Council. Therefore, I-27 is outside the scope of the local initiative power, and the superior court properly enjoined it from the ballot,” concludes a decision by the Washington State Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court issued its decision Thursday morning. It comes after months of legal back-and-forth over CHEL (Community Health Engagement Location) sites, more commonly referred to as safe injection sites.

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“I’m very pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision,” said King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles. “Public health policy should not be decided by a people’s initiative. Safe injection sites have the potential to change the trajectory of a person’s life. I only wish my young nephew had access to one before he died.”

“We have to try something new,” Kohl-Welles said. “Maintaining the status quo is no longer an option. Too many people are dying.”

The county council member said she would like a site to open as soon as possible because she’s convinced they “save lives” and “help protect the public from needles laying around.”

If the court ruled the other way, the initiative could have appeared on the special February ballot.

In short, the court concluded that I-27 attempted to interfere with the budgetary authority of the county council, something that the local initiative process does not rise above. But the road to that conclusion has spanned a year and has hit many bumps.

“Their decision is based in our Constitution, and in our statues that important public policy decisions involving health should be made by experts,” Kohl-Welles said.

Initiative 27: Banning safe injection sites

King County approved $2,127,000 in 2017 to implement recommendations by its Heroin and Prescription Opioid Addiction Task Force, which included the creation of three injection sites. The sites are designed to offer a place for addicts to use drugs under medical supervision, aiming to prevent death. They also provide services for recovery and other treatment.

“The board of health … voted unanimously almost two years ago to approve the recommendations,” Kohl-Welles said.

Two were proposed in King County, and one in Seattle. The county’s funding plan barred placement of any such site in a community that banned them. Many cities, did just that, including Bellevue, Kirkland, and Renton, among others.

But the proposal faced opposition, prompting Initiative 27. The initiative, led by Bothell Councilmember Joshua Freed, attempted to ban funding for safe injection sites in King County. The initiative garnered more than 60,000 signatures in support of it. A counter group sued over the initiative, arguing it went beyond the scope of the process. A county superior court agreed with that argument and prevented the initiative from appearing on the ballot.

The legal battle did not end there, and landed with the state Supreme Court.

The issue in front of the Supreme Court was whether or not the trial court properly determined that Initiative 27 was outside the scope of local initiative power. The Supreme Court noted in its decision that it can review whether or not the initiative is beyond that scope, but it generally disfavors judicial preelection review.

The court points out that while state initiatives are governed by the state constitution, local initiatives are governed by county charters, allowing for “home rule.”

“We have recognized that a municipality’s governing body, or ‘legislative authority,’ includes the mayor and the city council, but not the electorate,” the court’s conclusion states.
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