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Seattle’s Mayor Agrees to Open Two Supervised Injection Sites

This is the closest a U.S. city has come to opening facilities where drug users may bring in their substances and use in a clean space, with medical help on hand.
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Photo showing a man injecting himself with a substance in a supervised injection booth in Vancouver, B.C.

Seattle’s mayor and county executive have signed off on the opening of two so-called “safe” drug consumption sites in the city and county, Seattle news outlets report. The facilities allow people to bring in their own illicit drugs and use them while under the supervision of a trained staff who provide clean needles, reverse overdoses, and refer folks to further medical treatment, including addiction treatment.

“My visit to Insite, Vancouver, Canada’s safe consumption site, made clear these sites save lives and that is our goal in Seattle/King County,” Mayor Ed Murray said in a statement. “Keeping people alive gives them the opportunity to get treatment and begin their path to recovery.”

Murray’s office hasn’t said yet exactly where the sites will be located or how they’ll be funded, the Seattle Times reports. KOMO News reports that Murray noted it may be especially difficult to secure financing if President Donald Trump follows through on his threat to cut federal funding to sanctuary cities like Seattle.

Seattle’s sites would be the first in the country, and there could be more on the way. Lawmakers from the state of California and cities in New York and Maryland have explored opening their own such facilities.*

Advocates consider supervised consumption sites to be an important tool for saving lives and reducing the toll of America’s opioid epidemic, but opponents worry about enabling drug use and seeing an influx of drug users in the neighborhoods where they’re located. When Pacific Standard visited the neighborhoods surrounding a supervised injection site in Vancouver, British Columbia, local shop owners refused to comment on the facility. “Resistance can be expected for many blocks around,” says Norm Stamper, a former Seattle police chief and drug-policy reform activist.

The science shows that supervised consumption sites reduce overdoses in their immediate vicinity and encourage people to get medical help. The sites may also reduce needle sharing among drug users, which would help slow the spread of infections such as hepatitis C and HIV. No studies have found they encourage crime or further drug use, and some research shows drug users are reluctant to travel very far to visit a supervised injection site, which suggests the facilities don’t “draw” users from afar.

The sites are not legal under United States federal law, Kelly Dineen, a professor of health law at Saint Louis University School of Law, told the Washington Post. Seattle’s closest model, the site in Vancouver, operates under an exception from Canada’s Supreme Court; it’s unclear whether something similar would work for Seattle. In addition, law enforcement could technically arrest visitors to the site for drug possession, but in cities where such facilities already operate, the local police department agrees not to perform such arrests, and King County Police Chief John Urquhart has been supportive of supervised consumption sites for Seattle.

*Update — February 1, 2017: This article previously suggested the city of Sacramento, California, was considering opening supervised injection sites; in fact, a Sacramento-based assemblywoman for the state had introduced a proposal.