Washington Task Force Calls For Two Safe Injection Sites, One In Seattle

By Kelly Burch 09/29/16

The mayor, county executive and police force are all in support of the plan.

Washington Task Force Calls For Two Safe Injection Sites, One In Seattle

A task force in Seattle has recommended that the county open clinics where heroin and opiate users could inject drugs without fear of arrest or harm, under the watchful eye of medical professionals. 

Dr. Jeff Duchin, the health officer for King County in Washington state, says the sites would not make using heroin or other illicit drugs legal. Rather, they would provide a safe space that policymakers hope will be used to encourage drug users to seek treatment.

“This particular feature, what we're calling safe consumption sites or community health engagement locations, where users can come and use their heroin or their opioid drug under supervision of a medical professional—in a nutshell, the idea is not really to give people a place to inject drugs and then go about their lives but really a way that they can inject safely off the street, out of doorways, out of alleyways—hygienic conditions to minimize their risk of infection, such as HIV; to minimize their risk of overdose and to minimize the stigmatization and social rejection that keeps a lot of these people out of the health care system in the first place,” Duchin told NPR’s Weekend Edition

The clinics would not provide any drugs. However, they would provide clean needles to prevent additional health issues, like infection transmission. 

“These locations would only provide health care providers that would give clean injection equipment so that people don't pass infections from one person to the next,” Duchin said. “There is no provision of drugs at all.”

The idea would require cooperation from law enforcement, since injecting heroin or other opiates is still illegal. According to Duchin, King County law enforcement is on board with the plan. 

Of course, the most important aspect of the clinics would be encouraging drug users to seek treatment. “Treatment is really the main bottom line that we're trying to promote as the most effective, you know, population-wide intervention,” said Duchin. “We want people getting in long-term treatment. And this is just one doorway that we can use to get people into treatment.” 

Officials in Seattle know that the proposal is controversial. However, they are willing to move forward despite the political risks. 

“If it’s a strategy that saves lives … then regardless of the political discomfort I think it is something we have to move forward,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said during a news conference earlier this month. 

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray also said he would support the plan if it can be done “in a way that reduces the negative impacts” on surrounding neighborhoods. 

Duchin said that community resistance is to be expected, but that other community health initiatives have also faced resistance. 

“I think it’s worth remembering that at one time needle exchanges faced similar challenges, and in the years since we’ve found that they work not only from a public-health standpoint but as cost-savings for law enforcement and others,” he said, according to the Seattle Times

The task force—which was created to address the opioid problem in Seattle—released the plan on Sept. 15, calling for a pilot program involving two clinics, one in the city of Seattle and one in a yet-to-be-determined area outside the city where drug use is high. It is not clear when the clinics might open.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.