Safe injection sites in King County clear court hurdle
SUPPORTERS SAY SITES WOULD REDUCE OVERDOSE DEATHS AND INCREASE THE CHANCES USERS WILL CONNECT TO SERVICES, BASED ON RESEARCH AT A VANCOUVER, B.C., FACILITY THAT HAS BEEN OPEN SINCE 2003.
A plan to open safeinjection sites in King County cleared a legal hurdle Thursday, as the state Supreme Court struck down a proposed initiative that would have blocked funding for them.
The court unanimously ruled that Initiative 27 — which was slated for the February 2018 ballot before being tossed out by a King County Superior Court judge last year — infringed on the authority of the Metropolitan King County Council.
The initiative would have allowed King County voters to decide whether to ban public funding for safe-injection sites. In an opinion written by Justice Charles Johnson, the court said that “while we do not question whether a different initiative could be used to set policy concerning (safe-injection) sites,” Initiative 27 interfered with the council’s budgetsetting authority.
Safe-injection sites are intended to allow people to use drugs in a sanitary, supervised environment with access to medical professionals. Some sites are already open in Canada and Europe. Several cities, including Seattle, in the U.S. have proposed them in apparent violation of federal drug laws, but none are open yet.
In 2017, King County Executive Dow Constantine and then-Seattle Mayor Ed Murray endorsed a recommendation from a task force on heroin and opiate addiction to open two pilot sites, one in Seattle and one elsewhere in the county. The Metropolitan King County Council approved spending $2 million, and Seattle earmarked $1.3 million in last year’s budget.
Supporters say the sites would reduce overdose deaths and increase the chances users will connect to services, based on research at a Vancouver, B.C., facility that has been open since 2003.
Critics, led by former Bothell Mayor Joshua Freed, argued that money and political will spent on the sites could be better spent on treatment for substance users who want to stop, and that the sites amount to governmentsponsored drug use.
The I-27 campaign received more than 69,000 signatures to get on the ballot, but Protect Public Health, a group of publichealth experts and people who have had loved ones die of overdose, sued to block the initiative last year. King County Superior Court Judge Veronica AliceaGalván blocked the initia-
tive, recognizing the authority of the King County Board of Health over budgeting matters.
The measure’s sponsor, IMPACtion, appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, which affirmed Alicea-Galván’s decision.
The sites have not been widely welcomed — Bellevue, Kent, Renton, Auburn and Federal Way have banned them.
King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl- Welles, a backer of safeinjection sites, said she agrees with the court ruling and doesn’t think health policy should be decided through an initiative.
“Safe injection sites have the potential to change the trajectory of a person’s life. I only wish my young nephew had access to one before he died,” she said in an email.
The Trump administration has threatened “swift and aggressive action” against Seattle and other cities that use safeinjection sites. But elected leaders are pushing for sites in Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, and Denver, and advocates are even pushing for them in places like Burlington, Vermont.
Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said he’s prepared to defend the mayor and City Council on whatever next steps they take.
The next major hurdle for the city is where to put the site. Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who chairs Seattle’s health committee, said they are talking with King County administration about putting them in a mobile van that would sit at an existing public health clinic or facility. She stressed the van would not be roaming around Seattle, and it wouldn’t be placed in a neighborhood without conversations with the community.
Mosqueda’s goal is to open a site in 2019.