Council bans safe injection sites in unincorporated Snohomish County

Nehring calls for other progressive programs to address opioid crisis

Kelly Sullivan

The Snohomish County Council voted unanimously to ban safe injection sites following a public hearing in Everett on Wednesday. The action came after a six-month moratorium on such facilities was enacted in September.

Dozens of residents gave testimony, including former opioid addicts, victims of drug-related crimes and family members of struggling users, prior to the ban being approved for unincorporated Snohomish County. A vast majority of commenters spoke against the facilities.

A Lynnwood woman said her son has been clean for two years. He now has a good job near Seattle's University District. She said she fears for his future, now that Seattle plans to open a safe consumption site in the city.

“If he has a horrible, bad day and feels like he can't make it any more, all he has to do is walk a couple of blocks to score some heroin, go get a hand, and inject right away,” she said.

Council chair Stephanie Wright said no one has sent in an application open a safe injection site. She called it a “proactive land-use decision,” adding the county's code was previously “silent on the issue.”

The Snohomish County Planning Commission looked into what sites could mean for the region, before the temporary ban expired. It issued a recommendation on Jan. 9 that the ban continue until the newly established Opioid Response Multi-Agency Coordination (MAC) Group recommends reconsidering safe injection sites.  

Snohomish County Councilmember Nate Nehring said the county is sending a clear message that it will look to the example set by King County or Seattle. He said governments have failed their residents and people struggling with addiction, and praised local innovative programs, including the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office sending an embedded social worker out with deputies and new methods being used to shutdown nuisance properties.

“Snohomish County is setting a model statewide for the innovative measures, which are being taken to tackle the heroin-opioid epidemic,” he said.

Multiple cities around the county have already chosen to enact moratoriums, Nehring said. Even more are looking into it. Pierce County is pursuing an ordinance based on Snohomish County's, he said.

In the Sky Valley, Sultan has already taken the same preemptive approach. Mayor John Seehuus proposed a resolution this fall. He believes the sites would only enable drug use and are not a solution to the situation. Many speakers shared his opinion Wednesday.

A Lake Stevens woman said at one point in her life she would do anything she could at the time to get hold of the Oxycontin for her addiction. She refers to the sites as killing stations; that people are being invited in to die.

A Maltby man said he's spoken to Snohomish County Sheriff's deputies who say they already lack enough resources to make a dent in the epidemic. Opening a facility would take funds away from effective programs to support one that could exacerbate the problem. He encouraged an open discussion, and thanked everyone who spoke, regardless of their stance on the issue.

Only one person, a resident of unincorporated Snohomish County, spoke in favor of allowing sites to open. She believes there is no silver bullet to solve the crisis. It is best to leave all options open. Safe injections sites have been shown to lower crime. She pointed to a site in Vancouver B.C., which opened in 2003, as an example. They can be a stepping stone to recovery, she said.

Canada's Insite program intervened in more than 2,000 overdoses last year, according to Vancouver Coastal Health. More than 3,700 treatment services, such as wound care, were offered to clients.

“We must start with the premise that all human beings deserve to feel safe,” the resident said. “At safe injection sites, women and teens are protected from sexual predators, addicts are protected from contaminated substances, and everyone is protected from the used needles. Honorable communities don't pick and choose who to serve.”

While opioid-related overdose deaths appear to be on the decline locally, the Snohomish County Health District believes use of the drug is as prolific as ever.

A Washington State Department of Health study released on May 5 shows Snohomish County had the second highest mortality rate in Washington last year — nearly one in every six cases of opioid-related deaths statewide. The statistics show a rise in synthetic opioids use.

“Not a single community or neighborhood has been spared,” health district administrator Jefferson Ketchel said at the time.

Opioid deaths accounted for the majority of all deaths that occurred as a result of an overdose between 2006 and 2016. That includes heroin, prescription and synthetic opioids.

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers announced the county's multi-agency opioid group (MAC) in November. The coalition has a 12-month plan to reduce abuse and coinciding crime, decrease the drug's availability, monitor and update the public on progress and expand resources.

“We’ve learned in law enforcement that we can’t arrest our way out of the opioid epidemic,” said Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary in a news release. “We’ve also learned that the only way to make any significant impact is through collaborative partnerships and by addressing the problem at the local level.”

An Everett man began shouting in the chambers when it was his turn to talk. He said he wanted to see a more aggressive approach from Trenary. He wanted more information on efforts to arrest the dealers bringing dope into the county. He said he was against the sites.

“I'm sick of it,” he said.

Photo courtesy of Insite: The Snohomish County Council has passed a ban on safe injection sites in unincorporated portions of the county.


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