Upcoming Conference | 2019 Re-Wire Policy Conference, Dec 10, 2019 Register

Column: Will safe-injection sites ease substance abuse in King County?

Columnist Keith Schipper

After months of deliberating, a task force created by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine recommended building two heroin injection sites—one in Seattle and one outside the city—last September.

King County Sheriff John Urquhart has pledged he will not arrest anyone visiting these sites to use heroin under the guidance of medical professionals, essentially legalizing the drug in our state’s largest county.

These sites would be the first of their kind in the U.S., but to see how they work, one can travel north to Vancouver, B.C. to visit Insite, a heroin injection facility that has operated since 2003. Insite sees up to 1,000 users a day and costs the Canadian taxpayer $3 million per year, according to this CNN report.

As King County moves forward, local officials have toured Insite to learn more about what we’re considering getting ourselves into. One of those who have taken the opportunity to visit Insite also happens to be one of its biggest opponents: State Senator Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way.

Miloscia (disclosure: This author has worked for Sen. Miloscia in the past), who urged King County officials to “get out of their ivory tower in Seattle and talk to regular folks” back in October, had his bill to ban injection sites heard in committee this week.

As predicted, testimony was mixed and emotional with one former addict saying these sites will be “devastating” and cause crime to rise. Others implored that we must do something to curtail our rising overdose deaths.

We don’t have numbers for King County in 2016, but 132 people died of a heroin overdose in 2015, according to an annual report put together by the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute at the University of Washington.

But compare that to Vancouver, which saw 51 deaths in December of 2016 alone. This alarming stat leaves those opposed to bringing this experiment to King County pondering how one could argue this is the best way to save lives and get people off the drug, and it’s one we have yet to see proponents address.

Miloscia’s bill is expected to pass the Senate.

Its companion bill in the House is sponsored by Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, and cosponsored by every King County Republican representative.

Will Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, allow it to come up? A vote on something as controversial as this puts members between pleasing their base and upsetting independent voters that decide elections. It’s what insiders call a “bad vote,” and it’s a predicament Chopp notoriously avoids putting his vulnerable members in.

It’s hard to imagine Democrats in swing suburban districts want to publicly support what amounts to legalizing heroin, and it’s equally unlikely the far-left wants to vote down this radical proposal and ban the sites.

Perhaps most telling is that no South King County Democrat signed onto Stokesbary’s bill, despite the fact that the second site is expected to go in that region.

One last hurdle supporters face is President Donald Trump’s administration and Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick to be Attorney General.

During a legislative hearing last April, Sessions discussed his thoughts on marijuana legalization.

“We need grown-ups in charge in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized,” Sessions said.

When asked about marijuana during his confirmation hearing, he wouldn’t commit to “never enforcing federal law.” His statements have left local lawmakers fearing he may shut down the industry.

Will Sessions stand down if we legalize heroin use?

Are suburban families in Bellevue and Redmond going to stand up and demand Trump allow their local government build heroin injection sites in their backyards?

Neither seems likely, but we are probably on our way to find out.

Keith Schipper is a Washington GOP strategist. Contact him at info@washingtonstatewire.com