Back in 2016, there was a flurry of activity, and anxiety, around safe consumption sites being established in Seattle. Clipboard-wielding supposed-do-gooders stopped people outside grocery stores in places like Bellevue, Kent, and Renton and asked them if they wanted to enable drug users in their community. People signed their names.
Initiative 27 gathered the amount of signatures needed to get on the ballot. It implored voters to vote against safe consumption sites. It would have prohibited them within King County, prohibited anyone from supervising a building built to be a consumption site, and punished anyone who violated the initiative. Last fall, a lawsuit filed against I-27 won. It wouldn't be allowed on the ballot.
However, Safe King County, the anti-consumption site group behind I-27, appealed the decision. Today, the Washington Supreme Court shot down I-27, and sided with the King County Superior Court decision: public health policy should not be decided by the people.
Safe consumption sites exist in countries all over the world. They're essentially a safe and secure place for people to use illegal drugs under the supervision of medical professionals. The sites also offer other services, like ways for people to receive outside treatment. The only safe consumption site in North America is in Vancouver, B.C. No death has been reported in an injection site.
State House Rep. Lauren Davis, who is also executive director of Washington Recovery Alliance, said she was “heartened” by the Supreme Court’s ruling.
“I believe very strongly that safe consumption spaces can offer a pathway to recovery," Davis told The Stranger. "But I want to emphasize that it’s one part of a multi-pronged approach to recovery. It’s not a panacea. There isn’t one.”
King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles is a strong proponent of safe consumption sites, as well. Her nephew died from a heroin overdose. Her mother was also briefly addicted to prescription oxycontin and fentanyl but was able to be weaned off by a doctor.
"For most people, that doesn’t happen," Kohl-Welles said to The Stranger. "I see right now that our situation is getting worse with the opioid crisis. By not utilizing the approaches that have been found to work, I believe we’re shortcoming individuals whose lives could be saved."
According to Protect Public Health, the organization that took I-27 to court, there were 379 overdoses in King County in 2017 and most involved opiates. A new report shows that fentanyl overdoses in King County are up nearly 70 percent in just the first half of 2018.
"We’re not doing everything we can and should be doing," Kohl-Welles said. "I don't think we’re able to keep up with the rapid increase in drug addiction"—She then took a weird turn—"I've been taking Sudafed for this cold for 10 days and…" She thinks her body gets used to the medicine and when she goes off it she feels worse. The same thing happens with her acid reflux. That's why she never takes prescription opioids.
A pilot project for two sites—one in Seattle, one in King County—was proposed and approved in 2016. There was $1 million raised for a feasibility study in 2017. But those plans were stalled after community opposition. Most recently, it was reported that only the Seattle site will move forward. That one is still in limbo.
Those resistant people in King County suburbs are afraid, Kohl-Welles thinks. They were afraid the consumption sites would be placed in their neighborhoods and didn't realize that it would be executed by community oversight. A lot of the rhetoric those people heard was essentially fear-mongering.
But that may be giving the opposition too much credit.
“As an advocate for recovery,” Davis added, “I wish people who oppose safe consumption spaces could use some of that same passion and enthusiasm to advocate for alternatives they say they believe in.”
Currently, there is no clear timeline on when Seattle will be implementing the safe consumption site pilot. It also may take the form of a safe consumption site van. Kohl-Welles hinted that this Supreme Court decision may get the ball rolling.
"I heard Seattle & King County Public Health was waiting to see what the Supreme Court would rule," Kohl-Welles said. "After this, I think they may look more actively for a site."
Stranger writer Rich Smith also contributed to this report.