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.

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  1. It’s been minute since I’ve been there or checked up on it, but last time I was in Tacoma there were used needles lying in the streets. Common sight, especially downtown.

    One of the local homeless guys would stage a look-out near the big bus transfer station, and he would run around picking up the dirty needles and throwing them away. The law, see, is that “possession” of a used needle is a serious, high-level offense. Ergo, users drop the needles the instant they’re done with them. And then no one touches them, because picking the needle up meant being guilty of a serious possession offense.

    So, the homeless guy wanted to pick up the dirty needles, because it’s a bus station and there’s kids and all, but he needed a look-out to make sure he didn’t get busted by the cops for doing so.

    1. Tacoma has taken a 180 degree turn. Downtown is pretty nice at this point, we don’t see a lot of homeless anymore (still some but nothing like the late 80s and early 90s). Hilltop is a pretty nice neighborhood now, all the “undesirables” have been pushed to the eastside and parkland area. Of course this may be the wrong time for me to praise Tacoma, because we have had some gang shootings lately, but it certainly hasn’t been the norm for more than a few years now. Seattle is the new shithole, go to the parking lots underneath any of the clubs on capitol hill and it is just gangs of people shooting up and smoking meth, pissing in the stairwells, etc. I work in DT Seattle and I live in Tacoma’s north end, and I’m happy as hell I didn’t buy a home in Seattle.

  2. Sure, why not pay for room, board, and provide the means to take their intoxicants… How about we just go ahead and provide them the H too? I’d be happy to put in an extra hour or two a week at work to allow someone to live in a free opium den!

    Is this the Libertarian Moment I was promised?

    1. On the plus side, we’d know where Epi would be each night!

      *ducks and runs*

      1. No, Epi wouldn’t mooch off the taxpayers. Miss you, Epi.

    2. I’d be happy to put in an extra hour or two a week at work to allow someone to live in a free opium den!

      The alternative is enriching drug dealers while making it impossible for junkies to do anything but being junkies, and significantly increasing their potential public health costs.

      Have you ever lived somewhere with a large homeless problem? This is among the less-bad ideas as to how to harm reduce the drug war impact on them and the communities they live in.

  3. Vote for me and you won’t have to go through withdrawal…

  4. Why not combine this with the “first apply, automatic rental” proposal and just bump the junkies to the head of the line for every open rental?

  5. It’s sad that the whole debate takes place in the context of how to deal with “those people” and “the problem” of homelessness. Is the choice really in between near-permanent incarceration and near-permanent intoxication for homeless people? If we’re going to have a government response to homelessness, then surely we can at least reopen the legal space for halfway houses and the many other avenues out of homelessness that the government has shut down.

    (Since we’re on the topic, it’s worth noting that B Obama’s push to get homeless straight away into housing has been a tremendous failure.)

  6. 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.

    Vancouver had this for years, and it’s…working…I guess? According to people who support it and work there? At least, it doesn’t seem to be doing obvious damage.

  7. Let addicts take the drug that caused their disease in the first place. Great idea, Seattle.

    1. Drugs don’t cause addiction. Millions of people take morphine, percocet, demerol, etc. when recovering from surgery, and they don’t become addicts. Addiction is about the addict, not the drug. Google “Rat Park”.

      1. Something like that. This conversation has been had here in VT in relation to the supposed cause of our heroin problem. It’s default to blame “big pharma” and clueless doctors for getting us to this point, but ignoring the fact that when most addicts “started with pills”, it was usually when they bought them off the street, not when they were prescribed them by physician. If you aren’t taking them to get high, the risk of addiction is low. But it fluffs up the hippy narrative that evil DrugCorp? is responsible for all our woes. Actual patients disagree.

  8. Yeah, not a good solution but better than the current one.

  9. As a soon to be Seattle resident, I’m all for it. It may be taxpayer funded vice, but it’s still a hell of a lot cheaper (and moral) than the War On Drugs.

  10. This approach may result in increase in the drug addiction. People will be allowed to abuse heroin and taking treatment is voluntary. Some people are so much into addiction that they cant think anything except drug of their choice.

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