As proposed by King County Public Health, safe drug consumption sites would feature medical personnel with naloxone to prevent overdose deaths and sterile needles for drug users to prevent the spread of disease. Photo by Todd Huffman/Wikipedia Commons

As proposed by King County Public Health, safe drug consumption sites would feature medical personnel with naloxone to prevent overdose deaths and sterile needles for drug users to prevent the spread of disease. Photo by Todd Huffman/Wikipedia Commons

Safe Drug Site Challenge Heads to State Supreme Court

The case will determine if an initiative banning the project in King County can go to the ballot.

The state Supreme Court will hear an appeal of the King County Superior Court ruling that blocked Initiative 27—a ballot initiative seeking to ban safe drug consumption sites in King County—from going before voters.

Long employed in Europe and Vancouver, B.C., safe drug consumption sites allow drug addicts can consume illicit narcotics—and get access to basic health care and other human services—while under the supervision of a trained medical staff. Proponents of the facilities argue that they prevent drug overdose deaths, prevent the spread of disease, 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. Amidst backlash from the suburbs, King County has already put plans for a county facility on hold.

Last year, opponents of safe drug consumption sites crafted I-27, gathering enough signatures to get it qualified for the 2018 ballot. In August, supporters of the safe consumption sites filed a lawsuit to block I-27, arguing that it violates King County Public Health’s authority to unilaterally address public health issues. Two months later, a King County Superior Court Judge ruled against I-27, preventing the initiative from going on the February special election ballot. The I-27 backers quickly appealed to the state Supreme Court.

In the October 2017 ruling blocking I-27, King County Superior Court Judge Veronica Alicea-Galvan argued that state law gives local public health broad authority over responding to public health issues, and that the initiative interferes with this statutory mandate. She cited a 1992 case where a needle exchange in Spokane was upheld by the state Supreme Court on similar grounds.

On May 2, the justices agreed to hear the case during a future session. According to a spokesperson for the state Supreme Court, the hearing will likely occur this fall.

“We’re happy that this court is willing to listen to it.” said Joshua Freed, chair of I-27 and former Bothell City Councilmember. “We will be standing on our side saying on behalf of the voters that we have the right to vote it up or down.”

Protect Public Health, the group of local public health experts—including Executive Director of Evergreen Treatment Services Molly Carne and Executive Director of the Hepatitis Education Project Michael Ninburg—that filed the original lawsuit against I-27, released a statement welcoming the Supreme Court’s decision review of the issue. “We believe the law is clear that public health decisions must be made by public health authorities in consultation with experts and are beyond the scope of the local initiative power,” the statement read. “We look forward to the Supreme Court taking up this appeal soon to get this question definitively resolved.”

“We’re confident that the Supreme Court, once they review the law, will agree with judge,” said Sandeep Kaushik, a consultant for Protect Public Health.

“One of the powers that we hold as ‘we the people’ is the right to the initiative. The initiative process exists for when we feel that elected officials have gone off on a tangent,” Freed countered. “It would be a gross violation of our rights to take that away. Seattle and King county and Protect Public health are trying to ban people from participating in the process.”

If the court issues a ruling upholding I-27 before October, then Freed said that I-27 could make it onto the November ballot. Otherwise, they would have to push for the February special election ballot.

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