King County Sheriff John Urquhart has been flirting with the idea of endorsing safe drug sites for at least several weeks. In January, the LA Times reported him saying, “As long as there was strong, very strong, emphasis on education, services and recovery, I would say that yes, the benefits [of safe drug sites] outweigh the drawbacks.” In February, he told the Weekly that he’d only been speaking “philosophically” in the LA Times quote and wasn’t yet ready to commit his support. He told us then that he was looking forward to the series of public presentations on safe drug sites by the co-founder of Vancouver, B.C.’s facility and other experts.
But last night, speaking on a drug policy panel at Seattle University, Urquhart came even closer to an outright endorsement of safe drug sites in Seattle. “I guarantee you,” said Urquhart, “that if you’re going into a safe injection site, you will not be arrested by any of my deputies, period.” (The panel was part of a series of public events advocates are holding in Seattle this week to drum up public support for local safe drug sites, which would be the first in the country.)
As close as he came to an endorsement, however, Urquhart was careful to distinguish his comments from straightforward approval. While he was very “intrigued” by the success of the Vancouver facility, he said, he is not yet convinced that safe drug sites are the right choice for Seattle.
Like other law enforcers on the panel—King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, Seattle Police Captain Deanna Nollette, and John Schochet representing City Attorney Pete Holmes’ office—Urquhart introduced himself to the audience by describing his own spiritual journey from hardened drug warrior to softie reformer. “I was a soldier in the war on drugs, and I was very, very successful,” he said, describing (as Nollette and Satterberg had before him) how he’d endlessly cycled addicts through the criminal justice system before gradually coming to embrace a public health philosophy toward drug policy. “The police are basically a hammer,” he said, referring to drug arrests, “and when you’re a hammer, every problem is a nail.”
The surprise support from Urquhart is just the latest sign that safe drug sites are gathering support in Seattle. The sites are essentially clinics where drug users can go to imbibe under the supervision of medical professionals and talk to counselors if they want to. InSite is a safe injection drug site that’s been in operation since 2003, and various studies have demonstrated its success as a cost-effective solution to the public health and safety problems associated with illicit drug use. InSite co-found Liz Evans is in Seattle this week to lobby for their establishment in Seattle on humanitarian grounds, and also sat on last night’s panel alongside Urquhart.
“What we’ve been doing for fifty years hasn’t worked,” said Urquhart, referring to the War on Drugs, which was formally declared by president Richard Nixon in 1971. “And police officers, police chiefs, will be the first to say, ‘Yes, it hasn’t worked.’ They’ll also be the first to say, ‘But I like the status quo.’…Until we change that attitude, nothing’s going to change. We have to realize that what we’ve done hasn’t worked. We have to try something new. Whether that’s safe injection sites or not, I don’t know yet. I’m still working on that. But I’m very intrigued, and I love hearing about the successes that Vancouver has had.”
Evans responded directly to Urquhart: “No disrespect, because I think that 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. 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…based on lies about drugs. So, first of all, I think the most important thing that needs to be done is for people to separate out the mythology around what drugs are doing to people and what the War on Drugs is doing to people, because they’re two very different things.”