Photo by Brandon Macz: Numerous needles scattered along apartment steps in North Seattle.
Photo by Brandon Macz: Numerous needles scattered along apartment steps in North Seattle.

Now that the city and county have cleared the piloting of safe drug consumption sites, a search is underway for potentially viable locations amid uncertainty about state and federal interference.

The King County Board of Health in mid-January unanimously approved a final report by the Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force, which recommends piloting two Community Health Engagement Locations (CHELs) — one in Seattle and one outside the city.

These would be used by people addicted to heroin to safely take the drug under staff supervision, providing access to treatment programs and other social services in the process. They could also be used by people with other drug addictions.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine have directed Seattle/King County Public Health to implement those recommendations.

But Sen. Mark Miloscia of Federal Way is pushing a bill in Olympia that would prevent safe consumption sites from opening, and also recently penned a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, asking the feds to block CHELs. His bill passed a legislative committee on Feb. 17.

Natalie Curtis, vice president of the Capitol Hill Community Council, which has been advocating for safe consumption sites in the neighborhood for more than a year now, attended her first meeting with the task force charged with finding viable locations earlier this month.

The task force is moving forward with assessing potential sites, however, Miloscia’s legislation is a concern, she said.

“They feel that this is threatening the likeliness of this coming to fruition,” Curtis said.

Curtis has a BA in rehabilitation studies and minor in substance use, and is pursuing a masters in nonprofit leadership at Seattle University. Finding out how the work being done in Seattle to address the heroin and opioid crisis can be translated nationally and internationally is part of her capstone project.

VOCAL-WA coordinator Patricia Sully and Curtis will be in Capitol Hill next week, exploring potential CHEL sites and gauging responses from nearby businesses. A large part of the initial process will be advocacy and education, Curtis said.

There were 229 heroin and prescription overdose deaths in King County in 2015. Heroin succeeded prescription opioids as the primary cause of opioid overdose deaths in 2013, according to the task force report.

A safe consumption site will only have capacity for so many people at a time, Curtis said, with users taking their drugs and then being monitored for about 30 minutes.

“The amount of people that will be in line to get those services will still be some kind of distraction to these businesses,” Curtis said, adding as progressive as Capitol Hill is, there are plenty of people that will not want a CHEL facility near them. “Luckily, facts back things up more than anything. I think that helps a lot.”

VOCAL-WA and CHCC worked together last year to bring a SAFE SHAPE Exhibit to Seattle, showing how a drug consumption site might work.

Curtis said vacant space near Swedish Medical Center would be an ideal location. There are medical services all over, and a methadone clinic.

“I feel like if you don’t try it here, where else are you going to do it?” she said. “You don’t want to shove it down to the south end.”

Brad Finegood, assistant division director for the King County Behavioral Health and Recovery Division, said rolling out safe consumption sites has to be done right, and sited where they will be highly used.

The Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force included people both in recovery and actively using heroin, Finegood said. There is good data on where overdoses are occurring, and survey information from needle exchange users, he said.

Just one CHEL site in Seattle to start “has about a five-block radius in terms of impact sites,” Finegood said.

“A huge part of what we’re doing needs to be in conjunction with communities,” he said. “We do not want to do this in isolation and without community input, and we don’t want to put these where they’re going to be rejected across the board.”

Support from groups like CHCC can have a strong impact on siting for a safe consumption site, Finegood said.

Needle exchanges are highly used in King County. The program has also placed more than 700 people in treatment programs in the last few years, according to public health.

Incorporating needle exchanges into CHELs makes sense, Finegood said. While the service has led to a reduction in HIV infections, another public benefit is reducing the amount of used needles found outside.

“I’ve gotten phone calls from people in Capitol Hill who say, ‘I’m sick of taking my dog out for a walk and there’s needles all up and down the alleys,’ ” he said.

People also use public restrooms to inject, Finegood said, and he sees sharps boxes popping up in more businesses.

From 2000 to 2015, the number of needles collected rose from two million annually to seven million, he said.

“That’s just another statement of how big the problem is,” Finegood said.

Even with sharps boxes and the city’s ramp up in responding to reports of found needles, people don’t have to look too long to find more.

“Every day I walk past Broadway, and it’s completely full with needles,” Curtis said.

She expects there will be plenty of pushback in Capitol Hill and First Hill, which is why education will be critical.

“We’re trying to have some kind of programming to provide that advocacy and education to the community,” Curtis said. 

VOCAL-WA will be hosting a short documentary screening, followed by a panel discussion, about safe consumption sites 6:45-8:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 22, at Seattle First Baptist Church. Find out more here.