Seattle will soon see its first safe injection sites, says Shilo Murphy, director of the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance, which operates Seattle’s longest running needle exchange and its only pipe exchange. The sites will be open within two months, he said.
The sites will be set up in vans and shipping containers so they can be moved around as needed.
The Alliance will place the vans in areas with high rates of public drug consumption, though Murphy hopes to eventually partner with other community organizations to reach drug users who aren’t centrally located. The sites will offer on-site access to clean needles, sanitary injection surfaces, trained medical assistants, information on treatment programs, and, perhaps most importantly, emergency overdose-reversal drugs. They will not, however, be officially sanctioned.
“I’m tired of waiting, because my friends are dying,” Murphy said. “We’ve waited for many years. We’ve waited for the system to play its part.”
Because the Alliance isn’t a publicly funded organization, there’s nothing stopping it from opening the sites, even if they aren’t technically legal. And Murphy isn’t particularly afraid of the consequences for him and his fellow volunteers or for actual users.
“When the needle exchanges weren’t sanctioned, it was the same fear,” Murphy said. “But to be honest, it’s the rank and file cops who tell me, ‘Why are you waiting? Push!’ I had an officer who talked to me the other day, he said, ‘Look, I have people injecting in this alley, I want to tell them to come to you so the business owners will stop calling me.’”
While he concedes that these individual cops aren’t representative of overall department policy, he believes that the support for his project is there, citing numerous business owners who have expressed similar enthusiasm for the project, from clubs on Capitol Hill to coffee houses in the University District.
Businesses support the idea, he says, because the safe injection sites directly benefit them. He cites studies showing that areas within two blocks of a safe injection site tend to see reductions not just in public consumption but also in associated trash. The sites help business owners who are worried about public drug use driving away customers and drug users who would probably rather not be shooting up in a grocery store bathroom.
Voices of Community Activists and Leaders (VOCAL-WA) supports creating safe injection sites, but the group is taking a different route. Instead of operating their own site, VOCAL-WA is urging the city and county to fund and open sites. VOCAL-WA is a grassroots advocacy organization that works with populations affected by drug use, homelessness and mass incarceration.
“Safe consumption spaces are a reasonable and pragmatic public health intervention, where individuals who use drugs can use in a safer manner under medical supervision, without shame or fear of arrest,” VOCAL-WA said in a recent press release. The group said it shares the same ultimate goal as the Alliance: getting safe injection sites open as soon as possible.
“In every campaign, there are short-term and long-term goals,” said Patricia Sully, a member of VOCAL-WA and an attorney with the Public Defender’s Association’s racial equity project. “Both of ours are consistent with what we understand those of the Alliance to be: have sites open soon, because people are dying now, and have many sites in many places because people are dying all over the county.”
While the Alliance is pushing forward alone, it’s not because the authorities aren’t interested in such sites. In fact, King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg has expressed support for the idea.
“The community should engage in a serious conversation about the potential public health benefits of professionally-monitored safe-use medical services,” he said in VOCAL-WA’s press release. “There may be models that both reduce the risk to the user and the negative impact to the surrounding community.”
Deaths from heroin overdose rose 58 percent in 2014, according to statistics from the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. Statistics are not yet available for 2015.
Metropolitan Improvement District (MID) staff collected 5,993 hypodermic needles in 2015.
Neighborhood activists have complained about discarded needles to the city. Neighborhood advocates such as Cindy Pierce, of the Neighborhood Safety Alliance, have argued that the city’s unauthorized homeless encampments lead to a proliferation of needles and has urged the city to crack down on the camps because of this alleged correlation.
Some argue that safe injection sites would provide homeless drug users an alternative to ditching their needles on the streets. Murphy said that many users immediately ditch their needles for fear of being caught by law enforcement with drug paraphernalia, and that increased criminalization of drug use is directly correlated to more needles on the ground. Being able to conveniently and safely dispose of needles when they are used would cut down on trash, he said.
To help further reduce the syringe disposal issue, the Alliance will be putting up a secure sharps disposal container outside its University District offices, said Murphy, and every safe injection site will also include one, allowing users 24/7 access to a safe place to dispose of paraphernalia.