Seattle Will Open First Safe Injection Site In U.S.

Harm Reduction Vending Machine

Seattle and King County, Washington will be the first places in the US to build so-called safe injection facilities for heroin users, Seattle mayor Ed Murray announced Friday, an effort to reduce an epidemic of deadly drug overdoses.

Long controversial, the facilities provide anyone who walks in with access to clean needles and space to inject drugs. Nurses are on hand monitoring the users, and, if an overdose occurs, can administer the reviving medication naloxone. The facilities also provide testing for HIV and hepatitis, as well as medical services.

“Like many places across our nation, Seattle and King County are experiencing an epidemic of heroin and prescription opiate use unlike any we’ve seen before,” Murray said in a statement. “Keeping people alive gives them the opportunity to get treatment and begin their path to recovery.”

Fears that the facilities, long established in Europe and Canada, amount to condoning illegal drug use have until now stymied their use in the US. Vancouver’s Insite facility, the first safe injection space in North America, has been visited nearly 3.5 million times since it opened in 2003. Nurses have intervened in nearly 5,000 overdoses, and no one has died.

“The goal is to prevent overdose deaths,” Jay Unick, medical epidemiologist at the University of Maryland, told BuzzFeed News. “There is overwhelming evidence that safe injection facilities do that.”

On Friday, the King County Executive, Dow Constantine, and Murray announced that they were directing Seattle/King County Public Health to set up two sites, though they have yet to announce specific locations or funding sources.

The announcement comes as many US cities grapple with how to fight the a crippling heroin overdose epidemic raging across the country. More than 33,000 people died in 2015 due to misuse of opioids, the highest number ever recorded. Heroin use has more than quadrupled since 2010.

Heroin deaths spiked by 58% in Seattle in 2014.

“The reality is people are using drugs, and it should be our mandate to keep people alive and make sure that they can reduce the harms associated with drug use as much as possible,” said Alyssa Aguilera, executive director of advocacy group VOCAL NY.