Council to Decide on Ballot Measure to Address Opioid Epidemic

You may have seen press reports about a new King County proposal to have a public vote on drug safe consumption or safe injection sites – called “CHELs” for “Community Health Engagement Locations.”  I support the proposal being placed on the ballot for public vote, so that voters will have a full range of options for consideration, in the face of an unprecedented and tragic epidemic of opioid overdoses. If this proposal appears on the ballot in February, 2018, voters will have an opportunity to fully and finally answer the question whether these CHEL sites should be tested as a possible way to connect drug users to treatment and save lives.

This new proposal responds to Initiative 27 (I-27), a measure sent to the King County Council in July, which will ask voters whether safe consumption sites should be banned.  The new proposal, introduced Monday, asks whether a limited number of safe consumption sites should be allowed as a pilot.  A few key points about the new proposal:

• This proposal is intended to appear on the February ballot alongside I-27, not to replace I-27. If the new measures is approved by the Council to appear on the ballot, which I support, voters will be asked whether they wish to ban CHEL sites (yes or no) and whether they wish to allow pilot CHEL sites (yes or no).
• This proposal will not and cannot supersede local laws and land use authority or require any city to accept a CHEL to be sited within its boundaries without its permission.
• This proposal does not change the 2017-2018 adopted budget language that says King County may only fund a CHEL site in a jurisdiction with local government approval.
• This proposal will not result in the County giving people illegal drugs.

Opioid addiction is an epidemic in our county and our country.  People are dying in our communities.  The number of overdose deaths in King County averages to more than one death every other day.  Opioid use has been declared a national emergency.  This is a public health crisis that we cannot ignore.

For this reason, in March 2016, the King County Executive and leadership from King County cities convened a Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force, consisting of professionals in health, law enforcement, education, drug treatment, and other sectors.  This Task Force made eight recommendations to prevent opioid use disorder, prevent overdose and improve access to treatment and services for individuals experiencing opioid addiction.  The eight recommendations included building awareness to prevent opioid addiction, promoting the safe storage and disposal of medications, providing treatment on demand, expanding distribution of the counter-overdose drug naloxone, and others.

Since the Task Force delivered its recommendations, public debate has centered on just one – the recommendation to establish two pilot safe consumption locations.   In the words of the Task Force, the recommendation is to “[e]stablish, on a pilot program basis, at least two Community Health Engagement Locations (CHEL sites) where supervised consumption occurs for adults with substance use disorders in the Seattle and King County region.  Given the distribution of drug use across King County, one of the CHEL sites should be located outside of Seattle.”  According to the Task Force, the primary purpose of CHEL sites would be to engage individuals experiencing opioid use disorder using multiple strategies, including safe consumption, treatment of overdose and rapid linkage to outpatient or inpatient treatment services.  The Task Force stated that areas that are drug use and overdose “hotspots” should be prioritized for one of the two potential pilot CHEL sites.

This recommendation has sparked a great deal of public debate. I have heard from constituents in favor of and opposed to CHEL sites. CHEL supporters point to expert review of experiences in Europe, Australia and Canada, which show that these types of sites can reduce overdose deaths, reduce unsafe injection practices, increase use of detox and treatment services, reduce public drug use, and reduce the amounts of publicly discarded needles – without increasing drug use, crime or other negative impacts in the immediate area.  Others ask if the sites will increase drug use, overdoses and crime.  The submission of I-27 has now made this subject a matter for a public vote and I urge all constituents to seek out more information and become well informed before casting a ballot on this life-or-death topic.

The County’s 2017-2018 budget includes almost $200 million for substance use treatment from an emergency services patrol, to treatment for people in the County Jail, to residential treatment and recovery.  Despite this high level of investment, we continue to have an opioid crisis playing out throughout the county and we must look to new ideas to help bolster what we already do.  CHELs could be an important piece of the solution as a way to keep people alive until they are ready to participate in treatment and as a place where people can be connected to treatment when they are ready.  The purpose of the new initiative is to allow the County to test out CHELs and determine if they do or do not save lives and do or do not help reduce opioid use.  The crisis we face is so urgent, I believe we must consider new harm reduction approaches like CHELs as prohibition and the “War on Drugs” has dramatically failed to solve our national drug problem.

The County Council will take this issue up at our meeting on October 16.  I welcome your comments and feedback leading up to that decision.  If the new proposal is approved on the 16th, it will appear on your ballot in February 2018 alongside I-27.