People are panicked, and for good reason: Drug-use deaths killed 332 residents of King County last year. Safe consumption sites—legal establishments where drug users are permitted to consume drugs under medical supervision—are proven to reduce harm from drug use, including overdose deaths. But, if voters approve Initiative 27, the ballot measure circulated by the group Safe King County, these sites will be banned in King County.
As a drug policy researcher, I can tell you that Initiative 27 is an uninformed, misleading proposal that will only prolong suffering and loss of life. What’s worse, it inspires fear of the very people who desperately need help by suggesting that drug users endanger us. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, drug users need safe places to consume and access to treatment.
The thinking that got us into the opiate crisis is not going to solve it. For 50 years, the drug war’s marginalization of users has failed to impact rates of drug use. It has successfully created myths about drug use that are hard for many of us to let go. That misinformation is central to Initiative 27’s campaign against a reasoned, researched public health response to the opiate crisis.
To be clear, three of Safe King County’s five talking points in Initiative 27’s points are flat out wrong.
First, they argue that “supervised drug consumption sites are inconsistent with protecting citizens and helping drug addicts.” This is false. In June, the American Medical Association endorsed the safe consumption site model, arguing that they lead to fewer overdose deaths, less transmission of infectious disease, and an increase in users seeking drug treatment. Safe consumption sites (SCS) are also shown to have an enduring positive effect on local residents and businesses, reducing complaints to police and public nuisance.
Proponents also say that I-27 "protects taxpayers by prohibiting public financing of drug consumption sites." However, the burden of overdoses and deaths, policing, and hospital and clinic costs on a public budget far outweigh the limited costs that SCS have been forced to succeed with. Evaluation of SCS in Europe and Canada show that they save public funds.
Lastly, they argue that I-27 "encourages local governments to offer treatment instead of continued drug use." In reality, far from undermining treatment goals, safe consumption sites are demonstrated to increase referral to treatment and to decrease drug use. They are also effective at reaching long-term drug users who have not been in the social service system.
Safe King County’s name implies that not opening safe consumption sites will keep the community safe from drug users. Ironically, the programs they are actively working against would reduce public drug use and improve safety for everyone. The current strategy of doing nearly nothing to address problematic drug use perpetuates public drug use, contaminated needles discarded unsafely in public spaces, and increases the number of deadly overdoses.
We know that safe consumption sites work; they have a long track record in Switzerland, Portugal, Germany, and other European countries as well as in Canada. They limit overdose deaths, reduce the spread of diseases through the reduction of needle sharing, and help stabilize users. They also increase the number of addicts entering treatment programs and improve overall community conditions. In Vancouver, Canada, the fatal overdose rate in the Eastside decreased by 35 percent in its first year when InSite, the first SCS in North America, opened. Many cities across the U.S. are now considering this option.
The reform of drug laws and health care policy is slow and being led by those on the front lines of this crisis in other cities and counties. Mayor Murray and County Executive Dow Constantine acted on the recommendation of a task force empaneled to study this issue. Its recommendations parallels that of the Global Commission on Drug Policy’s 2016 report in support of drug decriminalization and policies involving proven harm reduction.
Leaders and researchers from King County, as well as in countries around the world, recognize what works. Supporters of King County’s public health decision to implement these sites have filed a lawsuit to stop Initiative 27 from going forward for a vote. While King County waits for the court battle to sort itself out, I-27’s misinformation and scare tactics are out there. Please don’t be fooled by its oversimplified rhetoric. We should turn our backs on a long history of failed drug war policies and solve the public health issue of opiate-related deaths with tools that are proven effective. We can and should choose to support the proposed safe consumption sites. Safe consumption sites will save lives, money, and improve public health—and make King County a safer place for everyone.
Ingrid Walker is Associate Professor of American Studies in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington, Tacoma. She researches and teaches about the politics of contemporary culture in the United States. Her book, High: Drugs, Desire, and a Nation of Users, explores how drug prohibition and health care have created disparate practices regarding drug use in American life.