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Snohomish County preemptively bans safe injection sites

Sep 26, 2017, 6:17 AM
safe injection site, insite, injection sites...
Injection booths at Insite, a safe injection site in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP, File)
(Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP, File)

While King County continues with its plans to open two safe injection sites, Snohomish County wants to shut down the idea before anyone even suggests one.

The county council unanimously approved a six-month emergency moratorium on the sites Monday.

RELATED: Dwindling options for second King County safe injection site

While nobody has suggested opening a safe injection site in Snohomish County, Councilmember Nate Nehring — who proposed the moratorium — says his constituents are worried it’s just a matter of time.

“I’ve been out in my district talking with constituents, talking with business owners, and I hear a lot of people asking about what’s going on in King County … with homelessness, with the drug epidemic and a lot of what’s been going on with the safe injection sites, and really worried about the potential for that to creep up north into Snohomish County,” Nehring said.

He says their goal is to make a preemptive move that makes the county’s position clear.

“What we’re trying to do here is take a proactive approach and get ahead of the game, and say ‘Hey, this is not going to be the approach in Snohomish County,’: he said. “We want to go a different direction, looking at treatment and looking at ways to get these people the opportunities that will allow them to get their lives turned around, rather than setting up safe injection sites for them to continue to abuse drugs.”

Nehring says safe injection sites do nothing to get to the root of the problem.

“I think with safe injection sites the goal is simply to try to keep people’s heart beating, you know if someone has an overdose to try to help them to recover from that and keep the heart beating,” Nehring said. “I don’t think that’s enough. I think as a society we need to say the goal needs to be to get these people … to help them to turn their lives around and to get them into treatment.”

Law enforcement and safe injection sites

Seattle police have come out in support of safe injection sites in King County, but it’s a different story in Snohomish County where Sheriff Ty Trenary urged the council to approve the ban.

“We lack services here in Snohomish County,” Trenary said. “We have two 16-bed detox facilities, for a population of almost 800,000. I absolutely believe that we need to take a hard look at what we’re going to do going forward … We go around to the communities daily and say that this is not a law enforcement problem, it is a public health crisis and before we start encouraging its use more I think we really need to have a conversation in all of our communities about what we want to do going forward.”

He says the opioid crisis is the worst he’s seen in over 30 years in law enforcement … and neither the county nor the state were ready for it.

“I’ve got an office of neighborhoods where we have social workers embedded with deputies who go out and do outreach in the homeless camps because homelessness and addiction are tied very close together,” Trenary said. “And every time somebody says they want to get help we have to either drive them to another county or, more often, put them on a plane and fly them to another state. The state does not have services and we are not prepared for this crisis.”

But Trenary says even if we did have the needed resources, he still wouldn’t support the safe injection sites because they’re a move in the wrong direction.

“There’s a lot of agencies and a lot of organizations around the country who are tying their court system — homeless court — to addiction services and mental health treatment,” Trenary said. “The idea is to take somebody who is homeless, living in a camp, get them the help they need and get them back to a place where they’re employed, they’ve got housing and they’re healthy.”

Safe injection site arguments

Supporters of safe injection sites in King County argue they could help people get in touch with services they need with outreach available on site. But Councilmember Nehring argues there’s a better way.

“Why can’t we go out to where those folks are in the encampments and do that without saying, ‘hey you can come shoot your heroin,'” he said. “You know, it’s kind of like we’ll give you treatment, but we’re also going to give you a place to bring yourself to near death with a heroin injection. I’d much rather see us use those resources on things like the embedded social worker program where we can go out directly to where they are … develop relationships with these folks … and really, again, it comes back to the goal is to help them get their lives turned around and beat the addiction.”

Other supporters of the sites argue having a central, monitored location for people to shoot up would help keep parks, trails, and schools from being littered with used syringes.

“My argument back to that would be, we said the same thing about legalizing marijuana,” Trenary said. “We said that when we legalize marijuana, we would not see any illegal operations, and we still do today. And, so I just don’t see the straight line that goes between safe injection sites and no more needles in our neighborhoods. And if I did, I’d reconsider my position.”

The emergency moratorium only applies to unincorporated parts of the county, but the council plans to ask individual cities to follow its lead and pass their own bans.

And it’s supported by the Snohomish County Health District which recently stated that with finite resources to respond to the opioid epidemic the priority needs to be on preventing new addictions and making sure timely treatment is available in the county.

The public will get a chance to weigh on the issue on November 20, before the county considers a permanent ban next year after the six-month moratorium expires.

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Snohomish County preemptively bans safe injection sites