Ex-Users Are Moving the Needle on Safe-Drug Sites in Seattle

Even the sheriff is impressed by VOCAL’s pitch.

Before strep bacteria rotted the bones of her neck to the edge of collapse, she says, Turina James rented an apartment in Queen Anne and owned a small business.

But as her marriage faltered, she began using heroin on and off. One day she had a pain in her neck. An X-ray revealed a growing cavity amid the bones. She had strep in her blood, possibly the result of an unclean injection. Doctors rushed her to the hospital, told her she might wake up paralyzed, and started surgery. They cut the infected bones out of her neck and replaced them with cages, rods, pins, screws. Having lived to tell the tale, James is now committed to helping other drug addicts make healthy choices.

James is part of a group called VOCAL that aims to take realistic steps to lessen the impact of drugs in Seattle. More specifically, they’re beginning a campaign to win public support for bringing safe drug sites to Seattle.

These sites are sort of like a clinic. Users come in and consume their preferred drug in a clean environment under medical supervision, so if they overdose they can be saved. Counselors would also be available to connect willing users to a treatment program, housing, or other services.

James says the sites could help address many Seattle residents’ complaints about heroin use in neighborhoods. She predicts the sites will lead to fewer syringes on streets and fewer overdosed bodies in alleys. “There’s really no reason for all of this overdosing to go on or all of this infection to be happening,” she says.

The most common argument against sites like these—already deployed in other countries—is that they encourage drug use by eliminating the risk of jail. James says such arguments are bogus.

“Take a quick look at what [we’ve] got already,” she says. “You put [addicts] in jail, what happens? They come right back out and do it again. You force them to go to treatment when they’re not ready to go to treatment, they’re going to do what you want them to do long enough to get their butts back out here and do it again.

“You can’t say [safe drug sites are] coddling them,” she says, because the purpose of those sites is “to get the drug use away from the everyday people . . . Get the needles off the street, get the pipes off the street, get the embarrassment that they might be going through off the street.”

Patricia Sully, an attorney with the Public Defenders, facilitates VOCAL’s meetings. The group’s mission, she says, “is really building power in communities that are low- or no-income and directly affected by the war on drugs, mass incarceration, homelessness, and the HIV/AIDS and Hep-C epidemics.”

“Total sobriety isn’t going to be the goal for every single person, and we need to wrestle with that actual reality,” Sully continues. “Because if we don’t, we have a whole population that is left out, unserved, and we’re going to continue to see the harm that comes with that, both in disease transmission and public drug use and all of the associated issues that go along with [them].”

VOCAL, started a month and half ago, has begun to garner mainstream support for safe drug sites. King County Sheriff John Urquhart says he’s “very impressed” by the group and intrigued, if not outright supportive, of their proposal. “My reaction is, ‘Wow. Whoa. I haven’t thought about that before,’” he says. “This is such a foreign concept in the United States, in King County, and, dammit, for a police officer. . . But then I step back and think intellectually about this and go, ‘Hmm. Interesting. I want to hear more about this.’ ” (This is a step back from the “yes” he gave the LA Times last month when asked whether he supports creating safe drug sites; Urquhart says he was then “talking philosophically.”)

Urquhart will have a chance to learn more next month, when VOCAL launches its campaign to stir up public support for safe drug sites. That campaign will include informational public meetings, as well as a mock safe drug site that people can visit to see exactly what one might look like.

As we reported last year, all City Council members say they either support or are open to the sites, and Mayor Ed Murray says he “absolutely would be very interested in exploring” them. But talk is cheap. Even though safe drug sites have been shown to save taxpayers money otherwise spent on jails and emergency services, installing them in a city already mocked for its humane treatment of the homeless is sure to spark controversy.

But it’s a controversy that could save lives, says James. “I understand both sides of it,” she says. “I’ve been an addict, I’ve been a non-addict.” And on both sides, she thinks it makes sense: Make current drug use safer, coax addicts into treatment, and reduce public drug use and litter.

“I’m not saying just give it to them so they can get high,” she says.

Casey Jaywork covers City Hall and policy for Seattle Weekly. He can be reached at cjaywork@seattleweekly.com or 206-467-4332. Follow him on Twitter. Get more from your favorite writers by subscribing to our weekly newsletters.

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