January 27, 2017

Seattle, King County supervised injection sites expected to open within a year

Supervised injection sites in King County are on the fast track.

“Heroin and opiate addiction is at crisis levels among youth and adults … we can’t continue the status quo,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin with Public Health Seattle-King County.

A Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force proposed recommendations to tackle the local opiate addiction crisis. Among them was establishing supervised injection sites where addicts can consume drugs under medical supervision. Those recommendations were approved by the county health board.

The message during Friday’s meeting was simple: King County will start treating the heroin crisis as a public health issue, focusing on harm reduction. Supervised injection sites are a part of that approach. They are viewed as an extension of the needle-exchange program already up and running in King County. Officials aim to establish two supervised injection sites within a year in areas where public drug use is prevalent.

KIRO 7’s Linzi Sheldon reported that at Friday’s meeting Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said that Seattle will get a supervised injection site before the county does

“The public health harm reduction approach that we are already doing; our needle exchanges are model examples of getting people into treatment,” said Public Health Director Patty Hayes.

“This is not a short term road, this is a long road together,” she said.

Supervised injection sites

The first step for the county will be to create an implementation team that will conduct community outreach, find funding for the sites, and determine where the most suitable locations for the sites will be.

Health officials said that one supervised injection site will go into the Seattle city limits and another in King County. More could be on the way, but officials stressed that no plans for that are in place. But officials did say that there needs to be more than two to take on the current opiate crisis. Health officials believe the supervised injection sites will be a success, noting a survey of addicts showed that 87 percent would prefer to use such a location.

“Fundamentally, we are trying to undermine the heroin market,” said Dr. Caleb-Banta-Green with the University of Washington, who is part of the task force.

“The heroin market has more money behind it than public health,” he said, noting that it is currently a cheaper option to steal and remain an addict than it is to go into treatment.

Recommendations from the task force were officially approved last week.

In a press release from King County earlier this week, it was announced that Mayor Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine would discuss a plan to move forward on the supervised injection site program at the task force’s Friday meeting. It was also announced that officials would be available to the media after that meeting. But Murray and Constantine were not present to answer questions from the media.

What will the feds think?

One question repeatedly posed to health officials was how local authorities will address federal-level laws. After all, the drugs are illegal at the federal level and no supervised injection programs have been approved. It was noted that Vancouver’s supervised injection sites have federal approval from the Canadian government — the Canadian program was visited by local officials as a reference on how to implement the sites locally. King County will have no such approval from the United States government.

“I’m not familiar with the Canadian system,” Hayes said. “That’s their system. Here in Washington, we are the first in the nation to have this move forward.”

Officials said that they don’t expect the feds to “green light” the supervised injection sites. But they pointed to the needle exchange programs common in many communities, which were not immediately approved by federal authorities.

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