Snohomish Council sets drug injection site moratorium in 4-3 vote
SNOHOMISH — Two themes emerged from a discussion on a moratorium on sanctioned drug injection sites at the first City Council meeting of the new year last week.
The first, that the city was not ready to consider even a remote possibility of hosting the controversial and largely untested facilities.
The second, that the city needed a more holistic plan to address the intertwining issues of suffering residents, including homelessness, addiction, and mental illness.
No organization has applied for or even hinted at wanting to open such a facility in the area, but the city wanted to address the issue headfirst.
The body narrowly approved a six-month ban on the injection sites after a sometimes polarized and emotional hourlong period of public discussion and council deliberation. During the moratorium, city planners will prepare a comprehensive plan to holistically address the complex problems underlying the existence of drug injection sites.
The moratorium passed 4-3. Council members Jason Sanders, Larry Countryman, Steve Dana and Lynn Schilaty made up the majority; council members Karen Guzak, Linda Redmon and Tom Merrill voted against implementing it.
The council’s decision followed precedents set by Snohomish County and several cities including Lake Stevens, Marysville and Bellevue. Their moratoriums followed Seattle’s highly publicized endorsement of injection sites. Seattle has budgeted $1.3 million for 2018 to create the nation’s first sanctioned injection facility.
The minority vote was led by Guzak, who raised two motions of her own, both to “do nothing” regarding hypothetical requests to create such sites in Snohomish.
Guzak said the planning work is an “excessive use of staff” for something “that is very unlikely to happen” and “making a mountain out of a molehill.” Neither motion received a second though several in the audience shared similar views.
“We need to weigh time spent on what is likely,” said Kari Zimmerman, who said the effort was really “to promote a pet project” of Mayor John Kartak’s that she considered “ridiculous for what will be a non-issue.”
There are currently zero sanctioned drug injection sites in the United States. Approximately 98 such facilities are currently operating throughout eight European countries, Australia and Canada, according to the
American Journal of Preventative Medicine. At those facilities, trained staff provide a clean environment for injections as well as offer Naloxone to treat overdoses, addiction treatment options and access to other social services.
Still, some residents were adamant about banning the sites.
“My father was a heroin addict… it was not a pretty sight. He started at 17 and died with a needle in his arm in his 60s… Heroin addicts are not productive members of society,” said Olga Farnam.
“There is nothing sane or compassionate about enabling suffering” at these “destructive sites” said Bill Betten, who said he supported providing resources for drug addicts to turn their lives around.
Part of the conversation was educational as attendees asked whether low barrier housing was a de facto sanctioned injection site — the answer is no. Others wanted to know how such a site would even be possible given federal laws against the illicit use of drugs like heroin.
The planning department answered that while they were tasked with addressing local land use codes, not federal law, that applications to open a sanctioned drug injection site could also be thwarted by denying the applicant a business license.
Some of the questions were tougher, such as whether such sites would encourage drug use or if the sanctioned drug injection site model was viable.
“My wife helps at a clinic,” and is familiar with the Switzerland model of sanctioned drug injection facilities, said Bill Rockwell, “and those places are a mess.”
Some residents argued that they had known drug users who did recover and lead productive lives: we need to “keep people alive until they can make the choice to be clean” said one attendee.
While the city considers the diverse viewpoints of its residents, the six month moratorium provides it time to create a more strategic, comprehensive plan to address its own concerns about the ongoing nationwide opioid epidemic.
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