Pins ‘n’ needles: First heroin free-use zone endorsed in Seattle

© David Ryder
As the nation battles an opioid epidemic, one city wants to try something radical. Seattle’s Heroin Task Force has endorsed creating a safe heroin injection site and homeless shelter that would allow residents to use without costing them their housing.

Seattle is looking to kill two birds with one stone. The city’s rate of homelessness has increased by 19 percent since 2015, and in 2014, the city had the highest rate of deaths from heroin overdoses in 20 years. 

This leaves Seattle’s Heroin Task Force ready to try a completely new approach. Formed by Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine, the task force has endorsed opening housing for homeless that would not require abstinence and provides safe sites for injecting heroin to prevent overdoses.

Heroin addicts often find themselves shooting up in isolated, secret locations like public bathrooms or alleyways, which decreases the possibility of getting help in the case of an overdose. However, a majority of task-force members believe that opening a supervised facility that provides clean needles, naloxone in case of overdoses and connection to treatment opportunities could help reduce the risks heroin users face, according to the Seattle Times.

It could possibly even put some on the road to recovery.

Safe-consumption sites are not a novelty in Seattle. 1811 Eastlake Avenue (1811) is a dormitory for alcoholics that, unlike most homeless shelters, allow its residents to drink in their rooms or participate in treatment services on-site. 1811 has been noted for its success, such as saving taxpayers $4 million a year in emergency services and housing centers that are often necessary for homeless alcoholics.

In addition, the carte blanche on booze in 1811 was found to have reduced its residents’ drinking habits by a third, according to a 2012 study by the University of Washington.

But would this work for heroin? Daniel Malone, executive director of Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) believes so. Malone told the Seattle Times, “The model is totally replicable for any population with addictions.

Keeping heroin addicts out of the emergency room could save taxpayers money, as well. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), heroin was involved in 213,118 visits to emergency departments in 2009. Since then, heroin and opioid problems have exploded so badly that the Obama administration declared them to be a national crisis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that in 2014, more than 10,500 people had died from heroin overdoses, a rate four times higher than in 2002. In 2015, a report from the CDC concluded that “Heroin use has increased significantly across most demographic groups.”

Now that heroin use is increasing, along with overdose-related deaths, so too are expenses for treating an overdose. Naloxone, commonly known as Narcan, is one of the only drugs available to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

Patrick Branam, a Kentucky firefighter, described Narcan as “life or death," to WKYT. "There's nothing we can do for you in that situation if we don't have it. It's absolutely imperative that we have it."

Despite the need for the drug, its price is soaring.

"In 2010, when I took this position, we were about $4.00 a dose," Chief Brian Wood explained to WKYT. But in 2015, that price reached $38 a dose.

"This is the largest increase and you know we can't keep up with it. We still have to administer it. We're not going to stop," Wood told WKYT.

This brings us to the current situation: heroin use is increasing, along with hospital visits related to heroin and the cost of drugs necessary to reverse a potentially fatal dose. All in all, this is an extremely expensive endeavor.

Let’s go back to Seattle’s potential approach to treating heroin users by keeping them out of hospitals and in safe places. One woman who has been living in a supportive-housing complex told the Seattle Times, “Coming here made it easier to focus on doing what I should be doing to try and stay clean, on what I already should have done a long time ago.

While she is not completely clean or drug free, her housing complex allows her to manage her methadone treatments and keeps her heroin usage at bay.

Seattle is not the only city considering this extremely alternative option. Earlier this year, the mayor of Ithaca, New York also proposed a safe injection site.