The interests of developers or the safety of people living with addiction?
That is the choice that one Newport Hills resident presented to the Bellevue City Council before its vote to ban medically supervised drug consumption sites during a council meeting on Monday.
“We can’t say we don’t want these in our backyard because people are dying in our backyard and I think if someone’s dying in your backyard, you have a responsibility to help them out,” Collin Pucher said. “Are you going to vote today, council members, to help the most vulnerable people in our society or are you going to vote for Kemper Freeman and the developers who control this city’s interests?”
Council members did unanimously vote to ban the injection sites within city limits, but not before committing to take a serious look at how Bellevue can address the opioid epidemic that safe consumption sites are intended, in part, to address.
“This doesn’t mean we’re not concerned; we’re not heartless,” Mayor John Stokes said. “We have a great heart and we’re gonna work on this.”
Talk of banning Community Health Engagement Locations, also referred to as safe consumption sites or safe injection sites, began in April after the King County Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force delivered a set of eight recommendation, including the implementation of supervised drug use sites—one in Seattle and another elsewhere in King County, though where is yet to be determined.
Near the end of June, the King County Council voted against defunding the safe injection sites and instead voted to limit the use of funds to establish the sites “only in cities whose elected leaders choose to locate these facilities in their communities.”
According to the county, more people in King County now enter detox for heroin than they do for alcohol. The safe injection sites are intended to reduce drug-related deaths and health risks by preventing overdoses and the transmission of viral infections, such as HIV and hepatitis C, while providing access to treatment and social services. The sites would also, in theory, improve public safety by reducing the frequency that people use drugs in public.
“As you probably know, Vancouver, B.C., has opened their own safe injection site that’s existed for 13 years,” Pucher said. “And they’ve seen a marked decrease in the amount of overdoses that have occurred within the vicinity of the site [in the] downtown eastside neighborhood versus the rest of Vancouver.”
Pucher said this is significant because the downtown eastside neighborhood in Vancouver was comparable to the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1970s and ’80s when heroin reigned.
“We cannot do anything to delay or slow down the construction of these sites,” Pucher added, “because people are dying.”
Each councilmember who spoke said they did not believe the supervised injection sites would help people struggling with addiction.
Jennifer Robertson said she had even heard a story of how nurses at the site in Vancouver were helping people inject heroin for the first time.
Instead, these councilmembers said, they want to be part of a broader solution that looks at multiple elements, including expanding the drug take-back program, committing to public education for children and parents, potentially offering more first responders the opiate overdose antidote Naloxone, and looking into different methods of treatment, such as the dissemination of buprenorphine or Suboxone, drugs that reduce the cravings of opiates.
“This isn’t a problem that’s about them, it’s about us and we, as a community, really need to take a closer look,” Deputy Mayor John Chelminiak said. “I haven’t been. That’s my mistake. I’m gonna look at this much closer in the future.”
Chelminiak said he plans to visit the mayor of Nashville in two months to discuss the opioid crisis. The mayor’s son, a recent graduate of Pacific Lutheran University, recently died of a drug overdose.
“This affects all of us,” Chelminiak said.
The ban will take place Aug. 17 and will be in effect for six months unless the council extends the ban or makes the action permanent. A public hearing on the ban will occur within 60 days of its adoption, per state law for emergency ordinances.
This story originally appeared in the Bellevue Reporter.