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Voices of Community Activists and Leaders (VOCAL-WA) is a grassroots organization affiliated with VOCAL-NY. VOCAL-WA builds power among low- and no-income people directly affected by the war on drugs, homelessness, mass incarceration, and the HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C epidemics to create healthy and just communities for all. We accomplish this through community organizing, leadership development, public education, participatory research, and direct action.
VOCAL-WA kicked off its public education and advocacy campaign about safe consumption spaces with a Town Hall event, screening the documentary film “Everywhere But Safe” and hosting a panel of experts to talk about safe consumption, drug user health, and harm reduction. As a part of the campaign, VOCAL-WA and other coalition partners will be hosting a series of public events to foster dialogue about safe consumption spaces, increase awareness, and engage the community in conversation, including a public art campaign featuring local artists launching in late February, a series of presentations and teach-ins by Insite, North America’s first legal supervised injection site, from March 21-23, and a week-long series of events connected with SAFE SHAPE, a ‘pop-up’ traveling exhibit in the form of a pavilion that operates as a mock supervised consumption facility from April 19-24.
Concerned neighborhood groups, businesses, and advocates all agree that public drug use is a problem, and with 5,993 hypodermic needles picked up by the MID Clean Team in 2015 – just within the bounds of the Metropolitan Improvement District -- it is clear that we need better solutions. Safe consumption spaces are a reasonable and pragmatic public health intervention, where individuals who use drugs can use in a safer manner under medical supervision, without shame or fear of arrest. Such spaces, co-located with existing medical and service provision entities, provide a better alternative to our current reality of open air, public drug use.
"The community should engage in a serious conversation about the potential public health benefits of professionally monitored safe-use medical services," said King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg. "There may be models that both reduce the risk to the user and the negative impact to the surrounding community", he said. “The evolution of our approach to drug addiction from a criminal issue to a medical issue depends on our ability to explore different ideas that can save lives and reduce harm," he added.
The campaign for safe consumption spaces in Seattle/King County seeks to shift the paradigm of how our city and county address the public health crisis presented by substance abuse, moving towards treating public health problems with public health solutions rather than criminal justice solutions. We aim to bring awareness to the issue and push our city and county to take what is a profoundly reasonable step: create safe consumption spaces, co-located within existing trusted service providers along with medical services to prevent overdose and accessible to areas and communities most deeply affected by the war on drugs, the heroin epidemic, and public drug use.
Throughout the world, safe consumption spaces have been shown to work to reduce health risks to users and the broader public. There are at least 98 safe consumption spaces – sometimes also called safe injection facilities or harm reduction rooms -- operating in 66 cities around the world in ten countries (Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg, Spain, Denmark, Greece, Australia and Canada)– but none in the United States. France recently approved the development of four such spaces. Numerous peer reviewed studies show that harm reduction through safe injection and consumption spaces work, to decrease public health harms such as prevalence of bacterial infection, HIV and Hepatitis C risk behavior, to prevent fatal overdose, and to increase access to and utilization of drug treatment, especially among people who distrust the treatment system and are unlikely to seek treatment on their own. Further, studies show that safe consumption spaces do not increase community drug use, initiation into injection drug use, or drug related crime. In addition, safe consumption spaces save money by preventative spending that decreases heavy spending on medical treatment down the road.
"VOCAL-WA is helping start a necessary and serious dialogue about issues that concern us all -- individual and community-wide public health and safety concerns about public drug use in neighborhoods all over Seattle and King County. We need solutions that are based in and respond to reality, that reduce harm and that open doors for people rather than shutting them out. When I first heard about the Insite program in Vancouver, B.C., I was a little shocked. But to see that law enforcement, public health professionals, social workers, and activists united to support this approach - it starts to sound more pragmatic than radical. The research about Insite is compelling -- reduced car prowls and similar crime; less drug paraphernalia in parks and on streets; dramatic, lifesaving differences in terms of HIV/AIDS rates and overdose. To look at this as a way to put individual people's health AND community health first – it just makes sense," said Alison Eisinger, Director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness.
King County is seeing a record number of deaths from fatal overdose, with fatal overdose numbers higher than they have been since the 1990s. Coupled with a state of emergency on homelessness in Seattle/King County, where the annual “One Night Count” identified 4,505 individuals living on the streets -- a 19 percent jump from the previous year's count -- public drug use is an increasing problem.
Safe consumption spaces have the potential to help communities struggling with public drug use and community members who are living the reality of be unhoused and chemically dependent. The Capitol Hill Community Council embraces the idea, stating, “We as a Council have committed our work to prioritizing social justice and we know that safe consumption is a social justice issue. All of our neighbors and residents of Capitol Hill need the ability to live safe lives. For many people, that means having safe consumption spaces available. Not having these entities means that individuals will be in extremely unsafe environments. It's time we support all residents and provide folks what they need. We are excited to be working with VOCAL-WA to bring this vital dialogue to Capitol Hill."
"We can best treat addiction in our city as a social justice and public health issue, rather than strictly as a law and order issue. Just as best practice dictates that individual addiction be treated as a health issue, rather than as a matter of moral fortitude. Having safe consumption spaces doesn't increase drug use in the general community, instead it takes drug use off the streets and reduces needle trash. We know that prosecuting users for use doesn't increase public health and safety appreciably. This program is an answer to the needs raised recently in public neighborhood meetings calling for increased safety," said Tsukina Blessing, Advocacy Director, Real Change.