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Doctor: Why US attorney is wrong about safe injection sites

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)

A U.S. Attorney has told Seattle officials “don’t go there” when it comes to safe injection sites. And Mayor Jenny Durkan has said she is taking the threat seriously. Now, it’s time for a doctor to weigh in and explain why many in the medical field support the method of harm reduction and treatment.

“These are places that are going to be staffed by health care professionals, and the hope is to prevent overdose deaths — that’s the real purpose of safe consumption sites,” Dr. Robert Wood told the Candy, Mike, and Todd Show. “We’ve had an increase in the last 10 years of overdose deaths – twice as many now as 10 years ago … if we could get a substantial chunk of the people shooting up to use these safe consumption sites, we could prevent, an estimate from King County, 160 or so overdose deaths a year.”

“I think a lot of people want to treat drug use as a legal problem, but from my perspective it really ought to be treated as a medical problem” he said. “These people are sick. They need to be in treatment … and we need to prevent their acquiring diseases and their deaths in the meantime. I don’t think the way to approach drug abuse is through legal means. A better way is to approach it is through medical treatment and harm reduction.”

Wood is a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Washington. He was previously the director of the HIV/AIDS program for King County.

Safe injection sites and Seattle

Seattle’s effort to establish a safe injection site has proven difficult. Two Community Health Engagement Locations (CHEL sites) have been approved for the region — one in King County, and one in Seattle. The city set aside $2 million for the venture in 2017. Officials have since debated how to exactly implement the idea, even considering a mobile safe injection van.

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More recently, U.S. Attorney Brian Moran has come out against the safe injection sites, and has told Seattle officials he would deem them in violation of the law. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said she supports exploring a range of ideas to combat the opioid crisis and will take Moran’s threat seriously.

Wood recently co-authored an op-ed in The Seattle Times arguing that U.S. Attorney Moran is wrong and is basing his stance on ideology, not facts. He notes that King County set yet another tragic record in 2018 — nearly 400 people died of drug overdoses. Many of those were related to opioids.

Meanwhile, there are safe consumption facilities operating in Australia and Europe. Canada also uses safe injection sites, in fact, just over the border from Washington. Facilities in Vancouver, BC have boasted success with the program, known as Insite, the first legal supervised drug injection site in North America.

Criticism of safe consumption sites

Wood has heard criticism from locals about Vancouver, BC’s safe injection program, including the notion that overdoses have risen in recent years despite Insite being available.

“The attribution of increased deaths in Vancouver is related to increased use of fentanyl … and fentanyl has become a major problem in our country as well, and that’s resulted in a lot of overdoses across the country,” he said, further arguing that there would have been even more reports in BC of overdose deaths without safe injection sites.

Wood explains that safe injection sites are key points of contact between drug treatment services and addicts.

“That’s what we’ve use the needle exchange programs for, as a route into drug treatment,” Wood said. “If people keep seeing us over time, people in public health are befriending these populations over time, we can put them wait lists for drug treatment programs or help them figure out other ways of getting into treatment.”

“I think a lot of people are worried about the ‘not-in-my-back-yard’ phenomenon, sometimes we call that NIMBY,” he also said. “We’ve experienced that a lot with the needle exchange programs as well. A lot of people think these programs will attract people to their area and make the region less desirable.”

“But in fact, studies have shown that needle exchanges help to bring cleanliness to the area because users will bring in their dirty needles and exchange them for sterile needles,” Wood said. “The same thing, I think, could happen … at a safe consumption site. There would be less impact on the neighborhood.”

Wood further says that police will likely keep an even closer watch around safe injection sites, likely making drug dealers wary of hanging around them.

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