The weekend before last, I took a second trip up to Vancouver, B.C. to visit Insite, North America’s only safe-injection site and, as such, the likely model for two proposed safe consumption sites (which will include space for people who smoke meth, heroin, crack, and other drugs as well as injection stations) in King County. (The sites are among many recommendations that came out of the county’s heroin and opiate addiction task force.) I visited Insite previously over the summer, when program manager Darwin Fisher gave me a tour of the facility and the Downtown Eastside neighborhood that surrounds it. That time, Insite was open for business, and a steady stream of clients filed through; each told the staffer at the desk her code name and what drugs she was bringing in, and settled into one of 13 mirrored booths that line one wall of the tidy facility. I watched as drug users fresh off the streets searched for veins in their feet, did their makeup, washed their hands for what might’ve been the first time in days.
This time, I wasn’t alone, and I wasn’t visiting during business hours. Instead, I was playing third wheel to an unlikely pair of elected officials—uberliberal Seattle city council member Lisa Herbold, and conservative Republican state Senator (and candidate for state auditor) Mark Miloscia. Herbold, a supporter of safe consumption sites, invited Miloscia along in hopes of getting him to see the ways that Insite has benefited the surrounding neighborhood, and to view harm reduction through a more sympathetic lens. Miloscia has said he plans to propose legislation that would bar all cities from authorizing safe consumption sites—a sort of companion bill to his proposal to prevent Seattle from relaxing its policy on encampment sweeps.
Over the course of a long morning and part of the afternoon, Miloscia, Herbold, and I toured Insite, wandered around the Downtown Eastside, talked harm reduction over lunch with City of Vancouver urban health planner Chris Van Veen and Insite founder Liz Evans, and toured a clinic that prescribes heroin to addicts who don’t respond to methadone or suboxone, two common drugs prescribed as part of treatment for heroin addiction. We also visited the Rainier Hotel, a zero-eviction apartment building for women that used to be a thriving, successful drug treatment center; in 2013, thanks to what Evans calls the government’s “culture of bureaucracy,” it lost public funds for its addiction programs and is now single-room occupancy housing.
Fisher, Evans, and Coco Culbertson, a manager at the Portland Hotel Society, the nonprofit that runs Insite, walked a very curious (and at times visibly distressed) Miloscia through the admission process (more on that here), and explained the benefits of the services Insite provides. “Coming in here from the street, where you’re going to get water wherever you can find it”—that is, from a puddle in an alley— “it’s like going from the third world to the first world in a sense, because of that running water,” Fisher said. Deaths from HIV, overdose, and soft-tissue injury infections have declined dramatically in the surrounding neighborhood and in Vancouver as a whole, and detox admissions have increased (to 400 a year, according to Fisher), because Insite builds trust with its clients and doesn’t judge them, Fisher explained. Later, Evans would say that harm reduction programs like Insite have had an unanticipated side effect: Because people are no longer dying so young, “we’re treating chronic conditions in a population that’s aging ten years more than they would have 20 years ago. That’s incredible. We’re seeing chronic health conditions win a population that used to just die.”
Miloscia, who stared, aghast, at the drug users displaying goods for sale, shooting up, and chilling out on the sidewalks around Insite as Evans explained how programs like Insite and the Rainier Hotel save money, peppered the Canadians with questions: How do you know this is working? (They have data and studies that say it is). Why not just focus on prevention? (Prevention is just one pillar; you need to deal with people after they get addicted as well). And: “When do we say, enough is enough, and you have to rejoin society?”
That question was really at the heart of Miloscia’s objections to the Canadian experiment: Why coddle people who will continue to stay addicted, according to Evans, an average of 14 years, instead of just shaming them for their bad behavior, pushing them toward their own “rock bottom,” and if all else fails, forcing them into treatment? This is a fundamental difference in philosophy between those who advocate for harm reduction and those who believe in prevention and punishment. Evans and the other advocates argued that not only does forcing people into treatment not work, blaming and shaming only pushes people further into the shadows—and further away from help. “We would like to believe that forced treatment works, but it does not,” Evans said over lunch. “If we make people feel their life matters… their outcomes are going to be way better than if we push them further away.
“We have been so ingrained with this belief that telling people that what they’re doing is wrong and bad works, but it doesn’t work. In 25 years, I have never seen a drug user stop using because we told them they were wrong and bad.”
Miloscia is a firm believer in stigmatizing drug use and forcing people into treatment. He thinks it works. But what Miloscia really believes in, he says, is prevention—”scaring” parents and kids, in his words, into never picking up a drug in the first place. Tomorrow, I’ll have a post-Vancouver Q&A with Miloscia in which the conservative senator talks about what he learned from Vancouver, what he thinks of King County’s current approach to addiction, and whether anything he saw changed his mind.
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