Seattle Considers Safe Space for Heroin Use

Can a non-punitive response take it too far?


Maxim Evdokimov /

So what is the line between allowing people to do what they want with their bodies—including addictive and/or dangerous drugs—and using public policies and funds to facilitate it? And what's the line between policies that help protect public health and reduce public harms and those that fund behavior many believe to be self-destructive?

Seattle is considering where those lines might be drawn in a proposed program to create a safe space for the consumption of heroin. A special task force created by the city to focus on heroin addiction is recommending something even more accommodating than a needle exchange program. They propose a supervised facility where heroin addicts could get clean needles, shoot up, and access medication to prevent overdoses. They'd also be able to use the facility to get treatment.

The goal is to figure out what to do with the addicts among Seattle's homeless population. Seattle is trying to reduce the size and scope of its version of Skid Row, known as The Jungle. The city has reduced the population of people living there, but of those who remain, The Seattle Times reports, many are addicts:

[Seattle Mayor Ed] Murray has proposed a dormitory-style homeless shelter modeled after San Francisco's Navigation Center that would allow pets, partners, storage for personal belongings, and intoxicated residents — unlike some shelters — as a way to coax residents out of encampments.

The model is helpful, said Kris Nyrop of the Public Defender Association (PDA), which also supports safe-consumption sites. "But you need to allow people to use on-site, so they don't in an alley or back in The Jungle," said Nyrop, an outreach worker and drug-policy researcher in Seattle for two decades.

As an example of how this could all work out, they point to a facility that houses alcoholics that allows them to seek treatment on-site but also allows them to consume alcohol in their rooms. That's a model that runs at odds to most rehab or treatment facilities.

Some tend to resist the idea because it has a very strong whiff of taxpayer-subsidized vice. The libertarian ideal is to get the government out of looking at drugs and addiction as an excuse for punitive responses. That doesn't necessarily mean we want to bankroll the opposite instead.

But supporters point to a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that calculates this alcohol-friendly facility ultimately saved the taxpayers $4 million annually in "housing and crisis services." And it has reduced alcohol consumption among participants.

It still ultimately sounds like it could be better than what some folks are presenting as an alternative to incarceration, coercing them into mandatory drug treatment programs that are punitive in their own ways. And as a story from Missouri shows, court-mandated programs can actually put clients in a position where they can be coerced and abused by police officers looking for people to bust.