Heroin injection sites are not the answer to opioid epidemic | Guest Column

Response to article about Vancouver’s legal heroin injection sites to combat opioid epidemic.

We write in response to the Feb. 12 editorialized news article that promoted the Vancouver approach of opening legal heroin injection sites to combat the opioid epidemic in King County. (“Canadian facility offers answers on supervised consumption sites.”) While King County may be considering opening heroin injection sites, the Bellevue City Council has enacted a permanent ban on locating any of these facilities in Bellevue. We stand behind that ban as the data behind such facilities clearly highlight that they are not the answer to helping addicts transition to a clean, productive life.

The Insite facility lauded in the Bellevue Reporter article has not helped reduce the number of overdose deaths in Vancouver. When the site first opened in 2003, there were 190 overdose deaths in Vancouver. In 2017, there were 1,422 overdose deaths — a 750 percent increase. The homeless population has also significantly increased, from 1,364 in 2005 to 2,138 in 2017, a nearly 60 percent increase.

Around the facility, crime has increased with particular increases in theft and violent crime. While no overdoses have occurred inside the facility, even with naloxone-armed paramedics, more than 100 people died last year in the area directly around the injection center. Most importantly, the Insite model has not provided a proven pathway toward addiction recovery.

Although Insite is paired with a drug-treatment center, called Onsite, the percentage of addicts who requested or were referred to Onsite are appallingly low. In 2016 (the most recent data provided by Vancouver Coastal Health), fewer than 7 percent were referred to Onsite’s detox center and fewer than 3 percent ever finished treatment.

Even worse, the facility employees have helped individuals who have never injected heroin learn to shoot up while making no attempt to dissuade the first-time users as the nurses are meant to make people feel “welcome” so they will come back again and again when they want to get high. Studies have shown that the users of these facilities use more heroin, more often because they know they will be saved if they overdose. This in turns deepens the addiction cycle.

Rather than encouraging heroin use by creating facilities in which to legally inject the drug, people need better access to heroin treatments that work. Legalization or facilitation of any psychoactive substance means more use, more addiction, more crime and more lives broken. A more responsible use of taxpayer funding is to expand access to heroin treatment programs “on demand” to help heroin users get clean as soon as they express an interest. This would be the compassionate approach to helping addicts work their way towards sobriety, rather than facilitating a deeper spiral of addiction. And, unlike the heroin injection facilities, such approach would not violate federal law.

This column was written by Bellevue City Councilmembers Jennifer Robertson and Jared Nieuwenhuis.