Seattle Cleared to Move Ahead With Safe Drug-Use Sites

A heroin user shoots up. (Darryl Dyck/Associated Press)

(CN) – A ballot initiative to ban the funding of safe consumption sites for opioid users is off the table, after the Washington State Supreme Court found Thursday that local voters can’t override a county’s authority to set its budget.

Safe drug consumption sites were one of the recommendations from Seattle’s Heroin and Prescription Opioid Addiction Task Force – recommendations that the King County Board of Health voted unanimously in January 2017 to approve, including a pilot program with two initial safe consumption sites. The King County Council later enacted an ordinance to appropriate $2.1 million for the plan.

According to the 2017 King County Overdose Death Report, drug and alcohol overdose deaths have nearly doubled there in the last decade.

But an anti-tax group called Impaction spearheaded Initiative-27, which would have asked voters whether to ban publicly funded “community health engagement locations,” or CHEL sites, where opioid users could safely use drugs with medical professionals on hand to stop overdoses, as well as a needle exchange and ways to access treatment and other services. The measure also would have made it illegal for any entity – including King County – to operate a site that provides space for supervised drug consumption.

In response, community advocacy group Protect Public Health sued in King County Superior Court, arguing that the court should block Initiative-27 from the November ballot because it exceeds the scope of local initiative power.

Superior Court Judge Veronica Alicea Galvan found the initiative “proposes to engage in the appropriations process through prohibition of funding and therefore impinges upon the legislative authority of the county.”

Galvan declared I-27 “invalid, null and void” and barred it from the ballot.

Impaction appealed, but a full panel of the Washington State Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling Thursday.

“While we do not question whether a different initiative could be used to set policy concerning CHEL sites, the ability to set the budget and appropriate money to public health work is a specific delegation by the Legislature to the county’s legislative authority,” Associate Chief Justice Charles W. Johnson wrote for the panel.

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