The Kent City Council Bans Safe Drug Sites, but Allows Room for Reversal

Unlike other King County cities that have passed similar ordinances, the Kent vote was neither unanimous nor permanent.

The Kent City Council joined four other King County cities with a vote to ban safe drug sites.

But Kent’s vote Tuesday night differed from those of the Auburn, Renton, Federal Way, and Bellevue city councils. It wasn’t unanimous and it is a six-month ban rather than a permanent ban.

Councilman Dennis Higgins voted against the ban, bring the final vote to 6-1. He favors the creation of safe consumption sites, also known as safe injection sites, where people would be supervised while using heroin and other drugs. A county task force, appointed by King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, recommended earlier this year the creation of two such sites—one in Seattle and one at another county site. A total of 132 people died of heroin overdoses in the county in 2015, according to the task force’s website.

“We have to allow science and reason to drive our policy discussions and decisions,” Higgins said prior to the vote. “I hate it when hysteria runs rampant like we’re seeing right now. You can see it city after city. Last night (Monday) it was Renton. Federal Way. Good lord, we’re just scared little kids. I just can’t stand votes like this. I hate them. It’s not the right way to make policy.”

Higgins continued his explanation.

“These centers need to be considered as part of a holistic approach to the problem,” he said. “The statistics show that they work and the studies show they work and they don’t increase crime. If one of my relatives were addicted, I would want one last chance for them to get help in any way possible.”

Council President Bill Boyce described the reasons behind the decision to go with a six-month ban, rather than a permanent ban.

“Our neighboring cities, some of those just did a flat-out ban,” Boyce said. “We could have a flat-out ban but it’s a moratorium to give us a chance to think this through. I’m not smart enough; I don’t know enough about it to say yes or no, but I do want to get more facts and data before I make a decision.”

Councilwoman Dana Ralph proposed the ban and issued a media release last week to give her reasons. She preferred a permanent ban.

“This is an opportunity for the city of Kent to take hold of its own destiny,” Ralph said. “Without this, there was an option for the county to locate this site in Kent. I want to point out this is an ordinance to do a moratorium so we are pushing the pause button on this, which is a responsible thing to do. I have at least two pages of questions regarding these sites.”

Seventeen people testified in front of the council about the safe injection sites during the public comment period of the meeting. Nine spoke in favor of the sites and eight were against them. Eight people who spoke were from Kent; only one of those supported the site. Others came from Seattle, Tacoma, and Auburn. Two people who testified were on the task force that recommended the sites.

Patricia Sully, a task force member who supports the sites, said the recommendations included prevention and treatment for addicts as well, but that’s not always enough.

“We have to keep people alive,” Sully said. “Someone who dies never has the opportunity to recover. … Supervised consumption spaces enable people to be a little bit healthier and a little bit safer where they are. What the science shows us is that supervised consumption spaces do work. They help connect people to treatment services and reduce fatal overdoses.”

J.S. Pate, a resident of Kent for 39 years, spoke against the sites.

“I am concerned for them,” Pate said about people addicted to drugs. “But we need facilities that help them get off of it, where they can live and we take care of them. … You are enabling an environment that says drugs are OK. Drugs are here because we support this, we are giving you a facility to do this.”

City Attorney Tom Brubaker told the council that, because it is a temporary ban, the council will be required to hold a public hearing within 60 days about the sites. He said the public hearing is tentatively scheduled for the Sept. 5 council meeting.

The King County Council voted 5-4 in June to limit the use of county funds for establishing heroin injection sites only in cities whose elected leaders choose to allow the facilities. Since that county council vote, five city councils have passed bans.

This story was originally publishedin the Kent Reporter.

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