If King County creates a space for people to inject drugs safely, King County Sheriff John Urquhart says his deputies will not arrest those entering or leaving the facility.
King County's new heroin task force is considering creating a safe injection site for people who would be in danger of using unclean needles or overdosing. King County overdose deaths increased by 58 percent in the year 2014 alone, and between 3 and 17 percent of King County's 281 new HIV diagnoses that same year were linked to injection drug use.
The spike in overdose deaths has concerned Seattle lawmakers, who earlier this week heard from Vancouver health workers. Those health workers testified that their own city's safe injection site, InSite, has helped curb the spread of infectious diseases and overdose deaths.
The discussion about safe injection sites continued at a panel on public health and drug policy last night, held at Seattle University. There, King County Sheriff John Urquhart said that he wasn't ready to support decriminalization or legalization of hard drugs—at first. Urquhart added that he was still weighing whether a safe injection site would work.
InSite founder Liz Evans, who was sitting just a few panel seats away, lambasted Urquhart's position.
"No disrespect, because I think it's awesome that you're keeping an open mind, but while people feel uncomfortable around deciding, people are dying, like right now, all over the US, all over the world," Evans said. "And drug users are living like shit, like their lives don't matter, because we have adopted a mindset about who they are as citizens of the world based on lies about drugs."
Urquhart seemed to modify his stance on decriminalization when he accepted a question from audience member Lisa James.
"My question is to the law enforcement," James said. "I do believe in the safe injection site and so forth, but with the drugs still being illegal, what is the guarantee of the person entering or leaving the facility that they will not be arrested?"
The question appeared to resonate with Urquhart, a 30-year police veteran who once worked as a beat cop and narcotics detective.
"I have 700 deputies who work for me," Urquhart said. "I guarantee you that if you're going into a safe injection site, you will not be arrested by any of my deputies, period."
Seattle City Council Member Lorena González, who moderated the panel, said she's excited about the idea of a safe injection site for Seattle.
And Council Member Debora Juarez, who also attended the panel discussion, said she absolutely supports one. "I really want to put a safe injection site on Aurora," she said.
"We as public defenders knew as far back as '85, '86, '87, that the whole War on Drugs and criminalizing drug behavior, addiction, was wrong," Juarez continued. But when opioid addiction spread to more affluent white communities, she said, attitudes finally started to change.
"I don't mean this in a negative way, but when [suburban] white kids start getting arrested, people start caring about police brutality," she said. "When white kids in suburbia start dying of heroin overdoses, then it's an issue."
King County's heroin task force will meet for the first time this Friday.