King County overdose deaths rise, but no agreement on how to deal with opioid crisis

BOTHELL, Wash. – The number of people dying from opioid overdoses continues to go up in King County.  New statistics released Wednesday saw a 14% increase in deaths between 2016 and last year.

We all know the opioid epidemic is a huge problem, but where we disagree is on how we solve the problem.  Most government agencies and everyday people are now starting to carry naloxone, also known by its brand name of Narcan.  It’s the opioid overdose antidote that can save the lives of people who are overdosing on opioids like heroin.

A contentious court battle is brewing over whether our finite resources should go to drug consumption sites.  That’s where people can use drugs without penalty.

“For me, one is too many,” said People’s Harm Reduction Alliance Executive Director Shilo Jama.

Statistics show 258 people died just last year of an opioid overdose in King County alone.  Jama worked with government leaders, health care professionals and other experts on a task force to keep more people alive.

“We’re still doing nothing about it.  We still don’t have a plan,” said Jama.

The task force proposed opening two drug consumption sites, one in Seattle and one in another part of King County.  One facility would cost $1.5 million, where people can use drugs without penalty in supervised locations with health professionals standing by.

“You have two injectors (drug users). One in a consumption room and they’re having trouble injecting and one staff member turns to them and says I can get you on suboxone right now today, I can get you tested and all this amazing stuff, and the other injector is shooting up behind Jack in the Box,” said Jama.

But the idea didn’t come without criticism.  A petition to ban drug consumption sites in King County gathered thousands of signatures.

“King County Health says 75% of users want help today, meaning they want to be in treatment yet we’re spending time going around that to the 25% of users who don’t want help at all,” said Initiative 27 sponsor Joshua Freed.

Last October, a judge ruled the initiative can’t appear on the ballot.

“This government is based on 'We the People' so the people certainly have a say when it comes to public health,” said Freed.

Freed says the silent majority would vote down drug consumption sites if given the chance.  He says our limited resources shouldn’t help people do drugs but should go to treatment options.

“That’s where we need to be putting our focus in on-demand treatment,” said Freed.

Treatment is the one thing both Jama and Freed want to see get more resources.

“If a drug user would like to stop using drugs, there’s still waiting lists and blocks in the road and we need to make this as easy as possible for folks who want to get treatment,” said Jama.

Snohomish County already banned drug consumption sites, even though none has been proposed there, and some cities across the Puget Sound have followed suit.  Sometime in the fall, the state Supreme Court will hear the case about Initiative 27 as to whether voters will get to weigh in on drug consumption sites in King County.