Debate surrounding proposed safe drug consumption sites in King County continued Thursday night at a forum at the First Baptist Church in Redmond, where representatives in favor of, and opposed to, the establishments fielded questions from the community.
Lisa Daugaard, director of the Public Defenders Association in Seattle and a member of the King County Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force, represented the organization, which released a report on how to tackle the opioid use and overdose epidemic in the county.
Keith Schipper, elections manager for Safe King County, the group behind Initiative 27 that could appear on the November ballot, sought to persuade those in attendance that the consumption sites, which would include facilities for safe drug consumption, including intravenous injection in its mandate, shouldn’t be allowed.
Both representatives, however, agreed that the rest of the recommendations presented by the task force, including expanding treatment and outreach programs, should be expanded.
One man in the audience gave his impression of the debate as he addressed Schipper and Daugaard.
“This seems to be a very typical heart versus head argument, and the arguments for the safe injection sites are primarily head oriented,” he said, saying arguments against it seemed to come from a more emotion-based position.
Schipper got involved with I-27 after hearing the task force’s recommendations in 2016, and began talking with other members of the community, including Bothell City Council member Joshua Freed, who has taken a lead role in the initiative.
“We found that there was a groundswell of support,” opposing the two proposed safe consumption sites, Schipper said.
In two months, the I-27 organization was able to collect more than 70,000 signatures to place the initiative on either the November of February ballot.
Daugaard said she was not there to speak to the initiative, but to provide a case for the sites.
“A safe consumption program recognizes that people use drugs, it does not approve of them, it does not positively value that,” she said. “It is just a reality-based recognition.”
The idea behind the consumption sites, she said, is to give drug users a safe and clean environment to use their drugs. This could help lower the rates of infectious diseases, as well as connect users to a continuum of care when they decide to seek help.
The safe consumption sites were recommended by the task force, and is supported by groups like the American Medical Association and others nationally, who would like to see if the program could be used as a pilot for more sites nationwide.
Without a program like this, Daugaard said drug users will continue to abuse dangerous and possibly deadly drugs in places like public parks, libraries and bathrooms, and overdose rates will likely remain high.
“The status quo is highly problematic, the number of deaths is terrifying,” she said.
According to the New York Times, there were between 59,000 to 65,000 overdose deaths in 2016, up 19 percent from 2015.
That works out to around seven deaths every hour across the nation from drug overdoses.
“This is not a proposal that came out of anything other than a very sincere need to grapple with a reality that is out of control,” Daugaard said of the consumption sites.
While she said the two consumption sites that could be established in the county would likely not have a large impact on their own, the program could be scaled up in the future to possibly put a dent in the opioid epidemic.
Schipper was skeptical of the ability of consumption sites to meaningfully alter drug use. Schipper has traveled to a similar site in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada which is more oriented toward injection drug use, and said he doesn’t believe it has helped the surrounding neighborhood based on a high number of discarded needles on the streets and general poverty of the area.
He also said only three percent of people who use the safe injection site end up getting clean, and also questioned whether the county was able to maintain consumption sites in King County.
“It’s not that we don’t think that it’s not possible,” he said. “We just don’t believe that there’s evidence that King County can be trusted with that.”
He cited a recent sewage spill at the West Point Treatment Plant, which dumped millions of gallons of raw and untreated sewage into Puget Sound this spring, according to the Associated Press.
Schipper also voiced concerns that a safe consumption site could bring drugs, crime and used needles into communities.
The King County Council recently approved a measure that bars safe consumption sites to operate in a city unless they are approved by the local city council.
Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood has already shown interest in hosting one of the consumption sites, and plans for a second one, located outside of Seattle, have not been hammered out, Daugaard said.
Daugaard also said concerns about the injection site in Vancouver, B.C., specifically east Vancouver, British Columbia, were not necessarily applicable to Seattle’s conditions or the county as a whole, since the neighborhood that site was set up in was already heavily affected by injection drug use and poverty before the site opened.
She also said a single, or a handful, of sites is not enough to meaningfully change the trajectory of the opioid epidemic, but that these pilot programs could be expanded to make a dent.
Daugaard also said the King County sites would operate under a different mandate than the sites in Vancouver, British Columbia and provide outreach and services not just to injection drug users, but a wide array of users.
Ultimately, she said there are no other options available that give drug users access to a continuum of care quite as effectively as a safe consumption site.
I-27 was launched last May following a kickoff at Perrigo Park in Redmond. If it appears on a ballot in November or February, voters across the county will be given the chance to vote on it.
The county has until Aug. 15 to verify enough signatures were collected to place the initiative on the ballot.
Redmond’s Education Hill Neighborhood Association hosted Thursday’s forum.