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Lawmaker wants to head off Seattle’s safe-consumption sites

Seattle and King County may host two supervised injection sites. Credit: WikiMedia

One King County legislator is working on a plan that could dramatically change the conversation around heroin and addiction treatment in Seattle, by short-circuiting any effort to create safe-consumption sites.

State Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, has unveiled legislation that would block Seattle, and every other city and county in the state, from establishing safe consumption sites for heroin. In a press release, Miloscia said the move was a direct response to a report recently issued by the Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force, set up by King County and the City of Seattle, and the county’s approval of funding for two sites in its 2017-2018 budget.

The idea behind the sites is to provide a place where heroin users, for instance, can inject while around other people, reducing the rising risk of fatal overdoses.

Miloscia said he sees the idea of safe sites as “a disaster,” perpetuating a drug epidemic. “I think King County, my county, is pouring gasoline on the fire.”

“Canada’s system [of safe-injection sites], which I have actually gone and visited, has failed,” Miloscia said. “That’s not the model I think we need to emulate here and Washington state.”

Miloscia’s proposal is still in its earliest form: After bills are announced in Olympia, they typically have to traverse several layers of committees, including public hearings. And there were early signs it might not fare well in that process.

Democratic leadership in both the House and Senate expressed skepticism over Miloscia’s proposal, though the Democrats emphasized they hadn’t seen the specifics yet.

The Senate Democrats’ leader, Sen. Sharon Nelson of Maury Island, said at a weekly press conference that she was generally skeptical of putting control over the issue in the hands of the state.

Democrat are the minority party in the Senate, where the bill is starting out, but hold a majority in the state House, where the bill would also have to pass.

A House Democratic leader, Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Auburn, hedged at first when asked about the proposal, saying he didn’t know enough about it to comment. But he later said he generally agreed with Nelson.

With control of the House, Democratic legislators could either vote the bill down in committee or on the floor, or simply refuse to give it a hearing.

In a press conference, Miloscia said the state needs to attack the root causes of the state’s opioid epidemic, which he linked to homelessness and mental health issues. Miloscia said he will introduce a package of bills with that goal in the near future, but did not offer details.

“Obviously, the way we’ve done planning and operational delivery of these services has been a complete failure,” Miloscia said.

There were at least some indications Tuesday that, in addition to the Democratic skepticism, Miloscia’s measure might encounter less than enthusiastic support from fellow Republicans.

House Republican minority leader J.T. Wilcox, of Pierce County, sounded a more reserved note at the same press conference.

“It may be that there are multiple solutions,” Wilcox said. “I think the answer’s going to come from the local governments.”

Wilcox later clarified that he doesn’t necessarily object to the idea of a state moratorium on safe consumption sites, but that the issue needed more discussion.

Patricia Sully, a staff attorney with the Seattle Public Defender Association, who have advocated for establishing the sites, called Miloscia’s bill counterproductive.

“We have tremendous research on [safe sites’] effectiveness to save lives, prevent fatal overdose and get people connected a continuous care,” Sully said. “Preventing [safe sites] from opening doesn’t help us move forward in ending this epidemic.”

No jurisdiction should be forced to open the sites, Sully said. But, she added, “If they want to, they should be allowed to.”

Crosscut’s David Kroman contributed reporting to this story.

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