Podcast: UW addiction expert says safe-consumption sites can ease King County heroin crisis

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Richard Chenery prepares heroin he bought on the street to be injected at the Insite safe injection clinic in Vancouver, B.C., in May 2011. Insite, North America’s first and only legal injection site, is promoted by its founders as a safe, humane facility for people addicted to drugs.

Last week, state Sen. Mark Miloscia joined The Overcast to argue for his legislation that would ban King County and Seattle from opening safe consumption sites for heroin users. To Miloscia, R-Federal Way, such sites cross a moral line: he says heroin users should not be abetted by the government and instead should be “stigmatized” until they seek treatment.

On Episode 30 of The Overcast, we get a public-health and science perspective from Caleb Banta-Green, principal research scientist at the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute at the University of Washington.

An expert on heroin and opioid addiction, Banta-Green was part of the task force that recommended the opening of two safe-consumption sites as part of a broader strategy to fight a crisis that is killing hundreds of people locally each year.

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While critics of such sites fear they’ll lead to neighborhood deterioration or encourage continued addiction, Banta-Green says the concept is not so different from other “harm reduction” techniques used to treat obesity, depression or other problems.

“That is the nature of medical care, is reducing harm,” he said. “It is not refusing to engage with their patients unless they are perfect. Somehow, we have this different standard with opiate-use disorder than we do with other medical conditions.”

Forcing people into treatment is largely counterproductive, he says. So the goal of safe-consumption sites is to keep people safe and offer services that could eventually lead them to recovery. Besides, Banta-Green said, “I believe there is fundamental value in keeping people alive.”

While the safe-consumption issue gets a lot of the attention, Banta-Green said some of the other strategies the opioid task force suggested may be more important — for instance, expanding new modes of treatment and making them immediately available for those who want help. He points to medication-assisted treatments, getting heroin users on alternative prescribed drugs such as Suboxone.

There’s much more in the conversation, including an explanation of why King County’s heroin crisis is different than the one in Vancouver, B.C., which has had a safe-injection facility since 2003. It’s not known where King County’s sites would be located, but Banta-Green said it would make sense to place them in areas already dealing with massive open-air drug market problems and overdose deaths.

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