Tuesday’s meeting of the King County Council’s Health, Housing and Human Services committee was dominated by the subject of safe drug sites, also called CHELs. Last year, a heroin/opioid task force recommended that Seattle and King County each launch a pilot site where drug users can consume under medical supervision, with counselors standing by for people who want help.
The meeting included extensive testimony from some opponents and many supporters of safe drug sites. Because public comment ran long, Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles was unable to get a vote on her motion to have county Executive Dow Constantine prepare a plan and timeline for setting up the county’s pilot site. But whenever the council does get around to Kohl-Welles’ motion, they can rest assured that the prosecutor’s office has their collective back on creating the sites.
“I was part of the crack-cocaine response back in the 1980s,” says King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. “The response was the War on Drugs. I think everyone can admit that that was the wrong response.”
Satterberg, a Republican, wants this time to be different. “This opioid epidemic…should be handled by the public health officials,” he says. Given that those officials have already explained why safe drug sites should be one part of a larger response to the opioid crisis, “I’m fully prepared to use this office to meet legal challenges that might come up, and support what the doctors think is the most effective solution.”
Satterberg says that the purpose of safe drug sites is not just to keep people alive in the short term, essential though that is. “The whole idea of a CHEL is not just to sit there with your can of Naloxone and make sure they don’t die, but also to start to connect them with people they can trust who can introduce them to a better way of life,” he says. “Being an addict is miserable. Most people don’t want to be heroin addicts, and if they have somebody they trust who can tell them, ‘This is buprenorphine. If you have buprenorphine, you don’t crave,’” that might help them start baby-stepping toward a better life, he says.
To Satterberg, it just doesn’t make sense to keep on beating down people with substance abuse problems. “Addiction is a compulsive use of a substance in spite of negative consequences,” he says. “By definition, if we’re adding negative consequences, that won’t do anything to change people’s addiction. It just makes them more miserable and more likely to want to use drugs.”
This post has been edited.