The city of Seattle is moving closer to opening the first two supervised injection sites for IV drug users in the U.S., after a Superior Court judge struck down an effort to block them. The King County (WA) Health Department and County Board of Supervisors had voted in January to open the sites.
The controversial plan to open two safe injection sites in Seattle provoked a citizen’s initiative intended to block all public funds for the sites. Supporters of the I-27 initiative collected more than 70,000 valid signatures, more than enough to put the measure on the ballot.
But a group named Protect Public Health filed suit to stop the measure. In their lawsuit the safe injection site supporters wrote: “voters are in no position to weigh the scientific evidence or understand the impact of vetoing part of a multi-prong response to a local public health crises.”
On Oct. 16, King County Superior Court Judge Veronica Alicea-Galvan, who was appointed by current Democratic Governor Jay Inslee, sided with I-27 opponents, ruling it “interferes with the duties and obligations of the (Health) Board and County Council.”
The county plans to open at least two pilot sites, known as Community Health Engagement Locations, which will also offer harm reduction services, including access to buprenorphine for medication assisted treatment, and naloxone (also known as Narcan), to reverse overdoses.
Since the 1980s, about 90 safe injection sites have been established in Europe, Australia and Canada. The first site in North America opened in Vancouver, Canada in 2003. Studies have shown that many of the facilities have improved access to healthcare and treatment for people addicted to opioids, and reduced health care and criminal justice costs.
Joshua Freed, a Bothell City, Wash. council member, sponsored I-27. “When our elected representatives don’t listen to the citizens anymore, we still have the initiative process to make sure our voices are heard,” Freed told Fox News. “It’s not interference – it should welcome input.”
I-27 leaders vowed to appeal the October court ruling and they still hope to have a county-wide referendum in February.
King County is going ahead with plans to open two safe injection sites by early 2018, with one in Seattle and other to be located in an as yet undetermined city. The process has run into additional opposition; seven city councils in King County have voted to block a safe injection site, including the top five cities for opioid deaths outside of Seattle.
Michael Ninburg, executive director of the Seattle-based Hepatitis Education Project, has been one of the proponents of safe injection sites. His organization was part of the Protect Public Health effort against I-27. “This is different from other kinds of policy,” Ninburg told Fox News. “Public health officials need to be able to respond quickly and effectively in the case of a public health crisis.”
The safe injection site proposal has also run into opposition in the Washington Legislature. In early March, State Senator Mark Miloscia passed a bill in the state Senate to ban the sites, citing concern that establishing local injection sites will set a nationwide precedent for federally facilitated heroin use. The bill is now being reviewed by the state’s House Health Care and Wellness Committee.
“We need to stigmatize the people hooked on heroin who refuse to go into treatment, to save their lives,” Miloscia told Al Jazeera. “We need to push people into treatment, with cultural values and cultural pressure.”
In 2016, King County recorded a record 332 drug overdose deaths in 2016, two-thirds of them opiate-related