Why "safe consumption sites" may sound like a bad idea but is really a good idea

Today is International Overdose Awareness Day

A day when treatment providers, drug users and the people who love them can build awareness about risks and prevention of drug overdose. I wanted to use today to express my support of safe drug consumption sites planned for the Seattle area.

King County plans to open two "safe consumption sites" (also called safe injection sites or Community Health Engagement Locations). This would be a place where people could use drugs in a clean environment (primarily IV heroin users), under watch of a medical provider who would intervene if the person experiences an opioid overdose. The sites would also provide referrals to drug treatment and other basic services. This would be the first sanctioned safe consumption site in the United States. Washington State has a history of being pioneers in public health approaches to drug addiction and its associated problems. In 1988, Tacoma, Washington became the location of the first needle exchange program in the country. 

I support the piloting of a safe consumption site in Seattle. I know that public IV heroin use is already happening. Probably like you, I read in the newspapers all the time about the problem of needles being found in parks, gutters and restaurant bathrooms.

Safe consumption sites may be a hard pill to swallow for some. It may seem like moving in the wrong direction - shouldn't we be trying to stop people from using heroin, not helping them to do it? What I have learned about public health approaches to drug and alcohol addiction is that these harm reduction practices save lives, reduce risk for compounding health problems, and save money for the community. 

As a social worker, I have been taught to "meet people where they are" and to provide non-judgmental care. I know that it is compassion, not stigma, that helps people to change. 

The Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force, an interdisciplinary group that included local police departments, social service and medical providers, researchers, the Seattle Mayor's office, and King County Public Health, has recommended piloting two safe consumption sites in King County. The Task Force cited the successful use of safe consumption sites in other countries, and the "importance of providing support and services to the most marginalized individuals in the County experiencing substance use disorders."

The American Medical Association just voted to support safe consumptionsites. Citing evidence from other countries that such sites, "reduce the number of overdose deaths, reduce transmission rates of infectious disease, and increase the number of individuals initiating treatment for substance use disorders without increasing drug trafficking or crime in the areas where the facilities are located."

I know that these safe consumption sites will face opposition. I want to lend my voice in support of anything that protects the public and helps people stay alive until they can accept help to recover.

If you want to learn more:

Vocal WA! 


Lara Okoloko