A Canadian safe consumption site in Lethbridge. Photo supplied by ARCHES in Lethbridge

A Canadian safe consumption site in Lethbridge. Photo supplied by ARCHES in Lethbridge

County Plans for Second Safe Drug Site Now on Hold

Following intense resistance to the proposal from the suburbs, county officials are taking a wait-and-see approach.

Amidst backlash from suburban King County communities, plans to build a safe drug consumption site outside of Seattle have been put on ice for now.

Safe drug consumption sites—formally dubbed “Community Health Engagement Locations” by county officials—are facilities where drug addicts can consume narcotics and get access to basic health care, drug treatment services, and other human services under the supervision of a trained medical staff.

Long employed in Europe and Vancouver B.C., research has shown show that the facilities prevent drug overdose deaths, reduce HIV infection rates amongst addicts who use needles, and increase referrals to drug treatment.

In late 2016, a county task force on heroin and opiate addiction convened by King County Executive Dow Constantine, former Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, and other regional elected officials recommended that two pilot safe drug sites be established—one in Seattle and one outside of the city somewhere in King County—to help combat the opioid epidemic.

No timeline was delivered with the recommendations, but Seattle elected officials acted with some urgency. By late 2017, they had allocated over $1 million to fund a feasibility study for the project.

However, the proposal for a second site quickly garnered backlash in suburban King County communities. Opponents launched a ballot initiative that would ban publicly funded safe consumption sites in May 2017, but were later shot down by a King County Judge. (The ruling was appealed to the Washington Supreme Court.) That same year, the city councils of Auburn, Renton, Bellevue, and Federal Way voted to permanently ban the facilities, while Kent approved a temporary moratorium on them.

As a result of this opposition, county health officials appear to have put the proposed pilot project outside of Seattle on hold. While the recommendation from the county task force stands, officials have begun talking about the plans for a second site in more qualified terms.

Sharon Bogan, a spokesperson for King County Public Health, said that the county is strictly focused on working with Seattle leaders to establish their facility. “Currently there is not implementation work going on outside the City of Seattle,” she said.

Bogan said that both Seattle’s willingness to host the site and commit financial resources to it are driving the focus. “This takes partnership, it takes resources,” she said. “When you implement, you start where you can move forward.”

In a follow-up email to Seattle Weekly, Bogan wrote that the county’s strict focus on the Seattle site “does not preclude other sites in the County in the future.”

Other officials have voiced similar positions. On March 30, King County Public Health spokesperson James Apa wrote in an email that they “don’t have plans for any other locations at this time.” Later, Dr Jeff Duchin, Health Office for King County Public Health told KOMO on April 19 that the at-large site is paused until “Seattle gets its location up and running” and “shows some success.”

Further complicating the county’s initial plan to build a non-Seattle facility is a measure approved by the King County Council in June 2017 that prevents county funds from financing safe consumption sites in communities whose elected leaders have not voted for them.

Democratic King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, who voted for the funding restrictions, said that many King County communities are not ready for that type of project and that Seattle’s should serve as a testing ground.

“I would like Seattle to try this first because there is more support there,” he said in a phone interview. “I don’t think the same level of groundwork has been laid in communities outside of Seattle. I don’t think they’re ready for this.”

“Until these local governments embrace [safe consumption sites], it’s really difficult for county government to come in and impose a certain strategy, just legally with the permitting—not to mention politically,” he added.

Republican King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, who had pushed for a complete ban on county funds going towards safe consumption sites and strongly opposes them, told Seattle Weekly that “this Seattle-centric approach to policy doesn’t work across the county.”

Patricia Sully, a staff attorney at the Public Defender Association and long-time advocate for safe consumption sites, said that it’s reasonable that the county strictly focus on Seattle due to the “practical realities” of both the King County Council vote restricting the use of funds and widespread opposition to the proposal.

She attributed suburban communities’ opposition to safe consumption sites to misinformation about the project. “There is certainly a large amount of misinformation that likely informed the actions of the smaller counties,” Sully said. “Fear breeds fast and moves quickly.”

jkelety@seattleweekly.com

More in News & Comment

The language of the original bill prohibited privately-owned detainment facilities from being contracted by local, state, or federal government entities, but a last-second amendment was adopted to substantially narrow the focus of the legislation. File photo
Lawmakers flinch on banning for-profit detention facilities

Last minute amendment exempted ICE detainment facility.

Cooper Hawkins (9), Nash Hawkins (16) and Charlotte Hawkins (12) at the Hawkins’ home. Courtesy photo
Mercer Island family raises awareness for rare, undiagnosed diseases

Charlotte and Cooper Hawkins were born with an ultra-rare undiagnosed disease.

Replica of Vietnam Memorial making Enumclaw stop

A local vet has spent six years trying to secure this opportunity.

A proposal to make King County Metro fares free for low-income households could be approved in the coming months. File photo
King County considers free transit for low-income residents

The program would target those at or below 80 percent of the federal poverty level.

Federal Way resident Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens, 17, died Jan. 27, 2017. Courtesy photo
Law enforcement challenges report on sting operation that killed Federal Way teen

King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight’s findings rattle Sheriff’s Office, police union.

Unstable housing? Apply for Section 8

Applications open in February for housing vouchers

In 2018, the city of Seattle approved and then repealed a head tax within a month. It would have levied a $275 per employee tax on businesses grossing more than $20 million annually. Sound Publishing file photo
County head tax bill passes committee

Bill would let King County levy a tax on businesses to fund housing and address homelessness.

Gov. Jay Inslee signs the first bill of the 2020 legislative session into law. On the right stands the bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, who is wearing a red tie. Photo by Cameron Sheppard, WNPA News Service
Gov. Inslee signs tax bill to help fund higher education

Law shifts a portion of the tax burden to large tech companies.

King County Metro’s battery-electric bus. Photo courtesy of kingcounty.gov
King County Metro bus fleet will be electrified by 2035

Future base in South King County would house hundreds of the zero-emission vehicles.

Three-quarters of the suicide deaths among children ages 10 to 14 are caused by firearms, according to a new report from the Firearm Injury and Policy Research Program at the University of Washington. File photo
King County studies youth gun violence amid rising suicides

It’s unclear what’s driving the trend.

A King County work crew clears a road near Preston on Feb. 7, 2020. Heavy rains appear to have caused multiple landslides along the road. Aaron Kunkler/staff photo
The future could look a lot like this year’s flood season

Climate change is expected to lead to more winter flooding in King County.

High tides, as seen in this file photo of Raymond’s Willapa Landing Park in Pacific County, could become the norm in the future due to sea level rise. Sound Publishing file photo
UW summarizes Washington climate impact on water

The report localizes information from the United Nations.