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Opinion: Seattle’s retooled plan for safe injection sites a huge step forward

Safe injection sites have been hotly debated in Seattle for years. (KIRO 7 image)

On Tuesday, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan approved the city’s 2021 budget, which included a reworked proposal for supervised safe injection sites. After years of legal issues and objections from those who say that such a plan enables drug use, it would appear as though we finally have a version that circumvents those problems.

Are injection sites a slippery slope, or a tool against opioid epidemic?

The old proposal would have been modeled off a facility known as Insite used in Vancouver, British Columbia, where a user brings their own drugs to a specified location while the medical staff provides sterile tools, stands at the ready to administer overdose-reversing drugs, and, should the user be interested, connects them with social services and treatment.

That ran afoul of U.S. Attorney Brian Moran, who warned Seattle officials in 2019 that he “wouldn’t sit idly by” if the city moved forward with that plan.

And sure — it’s true that the Vancouver model very likely conflicts with U.S. federal laws as they currently stand. But in practice, it’s also a model that quite literally saves lives.

“(Safe injection sites) decrease mortality, they decrease overdoses, decrease communicable disease, they decrease crime, and overall, they provide a public health good,” Crozer-Keystone Health System’s Dr. Rick Pescatore told KTTH’s Jason Rantz last May.

The data appears to support that conclusion as well. One study conducted in 2014 found that supervised injection sites (mainly in Sydney, Australia, and Vancouver, B.C.) did not lead to an increase in drug use or crime in surrounding neighborhoods, and actually led to a reduction in syringes littering streets. To cap all that off, since Vancouver’s facility opened in 2017, it has responded to over 6,400 overdoses without a single death.

With overdoses increasing every year since 2014 in Seattle, the city is in desperate need of solutions, while still needing to align itself with limitations imposed by the federal government. That brings us to the retooled proposal Mayor Durkan approved as part of the 2021 budget.

Doctor: Why US attorney is wrong about safe injection sites

Rather than having a single location solely devoted to acting as a supervised drug site, workers at existing low barrier shelters will instead be trained to help reverse overdoses themselves, preparing them to step in as needed.

These are also shelters where drug use and overdoses are already frequent occurrences, allowing the city to provide life-saving services to combat an existing problem. This new proposal appears to carry far fewer legal issues than a brick-and-mortar safe injection site — Moran’s main concern has been with sites that openly invite drug use, whereas Seattle’s reworked plan simply trains people to respond to drug use that’s already present.

Whatever your opinions are on the right way to combat an overdose crisis, it’s hard to argue with an approach that brings solutions directly to the source of a problem. And while Seattle’s own version represents uncharted territory in a myriad of ways, it’s one that will likely be a necessity in what’s sure to be a long road ahead.

Questions, comments, or feedback? Follow Nick Bowman on Twitter at @NickNorthwest to weigh in, or reach him by email at [email protected]

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