Safe Space, Part 4: Safe Consumption in Seattle

This is the fourth and final installment in a series about safe injection and safe consumption spaces, Safe Space, which started in Vancouver, B.C. and concludes back at home in Seattle. Read Parts One, Two, and Three. If you like my coverage of harm reduction in cities, urbanism, transportation, drug policy, homelessness, and many other issues, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter by signing up at Patreon; your contributions are what enables me to keep The C Is for Crank cranking and to occasionally travel to places like Vancouver and Boulder to report on what’s happening in other cities and the lessons they have for Seattle.


Safe injection sites have a distinct advantage over many other harm-reduction proposals: They directly address a crisis that is in the forefront of the middle-class American consciousness, the heroin epidemic. Although safe-injection sites like Insite in Vancouver allow clients to use other drugs—in fact, Insite manager Darwin Fisher estimates that heroin makes up only about 40 percent of the drugs injected at the facility—most people think of them as heroin-injection sites, and therefore an answer to an opioid epidemic that claimed nearly 30,000 lives in the US in 2014 alone.

Safe consumption sites are different. At safe-consumption facilities, which are fairly common in Western Europe but nonexistent in North America, drug users (and, sometimes, alcoholics) are allowed to consume drugs by whatever method they prefer, including shooting, snorting, or smoking. This raises all kinds of logistical questions, which I’ll get to in a minute, but the basic premise is that people who shoot drugs aren’t the only ones at risk of overdose or in need of access to treatment and other forms of assistance; moreover, in general, every other method of consuming drugs is safer than shooting up, so moving users from shooting to, say, smoking is an improvement on the harm-reduction continuum.

Another distinction between Insite and what some harm-reduction advocates would like to see in Seattle is that Insite, as its name suggests, consists of a single site—located in a run-down, hardscrabble part of Vancouver that has no Seattle equivalent. Whereas drug use and sales are concentrated heavily in one area of Vancouver, Seattle’s drug use is decentralized and highly distributed, making a single injection site—a central destination for drug users from all corners of the city—less than ideal. (The neighborhoods around methadone clinics tend to be hotbeds of “disorder” and minor nuisance crimes isn’t because drug users concentrate there, but because a huge proportion of the city’s drug users concentrate there; currently, there are only two methadone programs in the city of Seattle, serving an estimated 2,200 clients, according to Evergreen Treatment Services director Molly Carney, with more clinics outside city limits.)

What may work best for Seattle and its drug-using population, in other words, is a network of small facilities spread throughout the city, where clients can consume drugs not only by injecting but by smoking, snorting, or any other method of ingestion. These sites would be indemnified by the government, blessed with the approval of SPD and the city attorney’s office, and staffed with people who can help drug users access services including treatment, housing, and medical care. Radical–yes. Doable–very possibly.

Patricia Sully, a staff attorney at the Public Defender Association and the coordinator for the harm-reduction group VOCAL-WA, says most drug users probably won’t travel across the city to access a safe-consumption site; they need services where they already are, which means small (or, potentially, mobile) sites in Seattle neighborhoods where drug users already congregate. Unlike Vancouver, “We don’t have one centralized area where all the drug use is concentrated; we have very diffuse drug use. And I think to mitigate the impact on neighborhoods, it’s important that there not be just one [safe-consumption facility so that] people are able to access  this kind of service where they already are.” Paradoxically, the diffuse nature of Seattle’s unsafe drug consumption could allay fears that neighborhoods will become drug-use destinations, Sully says: “There’s a lot of fear that if you had this kind of facility, it’s going to draw all these people, but I think it’s actually fairly unlikely that people are going to bus miles and miles and miles to access the service.”

Darwin Fisher, the manager of Insite, told me on a recent visit to Vancouver that whether a city builds a single, stand-alone facility, as Vancouver has, or many smaller sites, it should make sure drug users don’t have to travel far, because they won’t. “If I’m in withdrawal, I’m not going to travel 20 blocks to where the site is. That’s just not going to happen,” Fisher says. Montreal is proposing a distributed safe-injection system, and “if you were to take a tour of Europe and go to the 90 sites, I think the only consistent thing would be implied in the title (safe consumption). Everything else is negotiable, depending on what the community wants,” he says.

Sally Bagshaw is one city council member who says she would consider multiple safe-injection sites, but is currently inclined to propose placing them in existing public health clinics, which already have a health-care infrastructure in place. “I don’t think a safe injection site, in and of itself, is the model that I want to pursue. I would like to pursue the public health model where you can come in and have a safe injection site, or safe consumption site, [as well as] other options available when you come in the door,” Bagshaw says—a setup where “if you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, there are other options that are available to you there, whether it’s a prescription for [buprenorphone, a maintenance drug for opiate addiction] or treatment,  and that we also know that there are beds for people that really want to go into detox.” As I’ve reported, there are only a few dozen detox beds available for people withdrawing from alcohol or other substances in King County, a number that is pathetically smaller than the need. People detoxing from alcohol can die, making medical detox an absolute must for serious alcoholics, but supervised detox can help heroin addicts through the process too, and may be less expensive than building full medical facilities; Insite, for example, has 12 private detox rooms for opiate addicts that are medically supervised but are not full medical detox.

Liz Evans, the founder of Insite, said on a recent visit that she does not support the Bagshaw-approved co-location approach, because “if you embed it into an existing health service, the culture of the health service is the dominant culture at that location, and may not necessarily be as welcoming” as a site run by an independent nonprofit like Insite. (Insite, while its own entity, partners with and gets its funding from Health Canada, the Canadian federal health care service.)

Another hurdle North American advocates for safe consumption spaces face is the very notion of safe consumption, rather than injection; particularly, the idea of crack- and meth-smoking rooms attached to safe-injection sites. But Sully says safe consumption is really “not any more radical than safe injection,” and only raises eyebrows because it’s unfamiliar. “When you’ve got people who are outdoors using drugs, it’s going to be preferable for them to be indoors using drugs both for their own health reasons and for public health and safety of the neighborhoods,” Sully says. “I think that for a lot of people in the neighborhoods who are struggling with people using drugs outdoors, whether those people are injecting drugs or smoking drugs is largely irrelevant.”  

Matt Curtis, the program manager at VOCAL-NY, a New York-based harm-reduction group, adds that “unless you’ve done the world’s worst job of explaining a supervised injection facility, and you’ve explained it so narrowly that people are monofocused on that one little thing, I don’t think it’s that much more of a lift to walk people through why other kinds of safe consumption spaces are a good thing.” And both Sully and Curtis point to the issue of racial justice—limiting safe spaces to heroin users, who tend to be white and have middle-class backgrounds, excludes the crack users who were the victims of the harsh, racially biased drug laws of the ’80s and ’90s, which punished crack users much more harshly than those who used powder cocaine. 

“There’s certainly much more openness to this idea because of the response to the heroin epidemic, and you can’t really separate that from race,” Sully says. “The fact that this is affecting white people and middle America and ‘our sons and daughters’ and all these things —we certainly did not see this response to the crack epidemic.” For that reaosn, if the city chooses to focus exclusively on heroin to the exclusion of drugs used primarily by black people, “we have the potential to really exacerbate our racial disparity,” Sully says.

Building safe smoking rooms would be a minor engineering challenge (the rooms would need to be ventilated properly and segregated from the injection areas), but that seems surmountable. Likewise, the fact that people would be using very different types of drugs—including drugs like meth and crack that can make users aggressive and hyper, along with downers like heroin and fentanyl—hasn’t been a problem at Insite, where more than a dozen drugs are included on the login screen at the front desk, with more being added all the time. When I visited, the room was fairly quiet and mellow, even though there were people in the room shooting heroin, meth, cocaine, and other drugs, often in combination. “You still get people who say, ‘God damn it, it’s the coke users who are taking up so much time because they’re tweaking,’ but that’s just griping that happens. There’s nothing special about that,” Fisher says. 

Will Seattle–famous for processing everything to death, largely ruled at the dictates of neighborhood activists who blame homeless drug addicts for everything from property crime to the presence of discarded couches in neighborhoods–manage to transcend its sometimes-wary attitude toward counterintuitive solutions and embrace safe-consumption sites? Advocates insist there are signs that it may. 

For one thing, we already have Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD)–a program that partners SPD and human and social services agencies to divert low-level offenders from jail and into community-based interventions, without expecting them to change everything overnight. Since the program began in Belltown, it has expanded through SPD’s West Precinct and will soon include Capitol Hill.

At a Council District 6 public safety meeting Wednesday night, Public Defender Association director Lisa Daugaard said one thing groups like the PDA, which advocates for harm reduction and criminal justice reform, learned doing LEAD is that advocates can’t merely impose their preferred solutions on neighborhoods; they have to engage communities and show them that they take their concerns seriously. Only then can advocates like Daugaard show communities how programs like LEAD (and, by extension, safe consumption sites) can actually help address the problems they perceive, like property crime, drug addiction, and visible homelessness.

“Even if it was ineffective, wrong, unconstitutional, and stupid” to lock people up over and over for minor crimes like drug possession, “we weren’t engaging the central dynamic, which is that it was actually problematic for people to engage in those behaviors,” like aggressive panhandling, public urination, and minor property crimes, Daugaard said. “So, some years back, some folks on both sides of these conversations decided to talk about the issue in a different way … and reframe the conversation in terms of what actually works. And it turns out that if that’s the lodestar of your conversation, it leads to completely different policy choices.”

At a city council-sponsored public forum on safe consumption sites earlier this year, one unlikely advocate, Magnolia neighborhood activist Gretchen Taylor, expressed her tentative support for the idea of safe consumption facilities–if they are closely monitored and accompanied by strategies that reduce crime in the neighborhoods. Cindy Pierce, another Magnolia neighborhood activist who, with Taylor and several others, formed a group called the Neighborhood Safety Alliance last year, has also expressed a willingness to discuss safe-consumption sites if they will reduce crime and other visible signs of homelessness and addiction. Both women traveled to San Francisco with Bagshaw earlier this year to visit that city’s Navigation Center, a low-barrier shelter that does not require clients to come in sober.
Taylor, whose son is a heroin addict, told the panel, “I do understand the wisdom behind Insite and I congratulate you for your victories. Vancouver has identified that years of failed policies have failed people and perpetuated … continued suffering. I totally get that.”
Taylor continued: “The frustration [in Seattle] has not only reduced people who are addicted to ‘junkies’ and ‘addicts,’ but they’re also not considered a viable part of our community whatsoever, and the frustration is leading to serious ramifications. When you say ‘harm reduction,’ I get it, but I think the citizens and the neighbors are going to want to hear about harm reduction for the neighborhoods as well–that most notably being safety and crime reduction for all of us.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement. But, perhaps, a start.

2 thoughts on “Safe Space, Part 4: Safe Consumption in Seattle”

  1. So addicts and junkies can’t suffer but pain patients can suffer and kill themselves and noone cares!

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