UW medical student Tim Kelly lay motionless on the cold tiled floor in city hall Friday afternoon along with more than 30 other health care workers lying beside him. With eyes staring blankly up and signs reading, "I support safe consumption spaces," Kelly and all his "dead" colleagues were part of a "die-in" highlighting the daily death toll of drug overdoses in the U.S.
As Kelly bluntly told me: a doctor, nurse or other health care worker's most basic duty is to improve the health of their patients and you can't treat or help somebody who is already dead. "It’s notoriously difficult to get this population, people using illicit drugs, accessing health care," Kelly, 29, says. "But at these sites you can have healthcare workers, mental health workers and social workers so that when people come to use the facility they interact with and engage with health care... that's huge because that allows us to do our jobs and save lives."
The Center for Disease Control reports that between 2000 and 2014 drug overdose deaths have increased by 137 percent, with a 200 percent increase in overdose deaths from opioids, including prescription meds like Oxycontin and illicit drugs like heroin. In 2014, there were more than 47,000 overdose deaths—a 6.5 percent increase over the previous year.
The city hall die-in participants were all members of a new group, the Health Care Workers for Supervised Consumption Spaces Coalition, which is advocating for safe consumption sites as a means to preventing drug overdoses and promote addiction treatment.
As Josh previously reported in a recent Seattle Met story, safe consumption sites, such as Insite in Vancouver, B.C., are supervised facilities where addicts can inject drugs in safety with a goal of preventing deaths and hopefully steering addicts toward treatment. However, the sites have been considered controversial because critics believe the permissive approach encourages drug use. (As Josh's story points out, though, the numbers don't support that fear.)
Carolanne Sanders, a founding member of the group, and a former EMT and UW grad student, led the demonstration and emphasized how important it was for the health care community to come out in support of safe consumption sites as part of a "harm reduction" approach to the growing opioid epidemic in King County.
The "die-in" follows the King County Heroin and Prescription Opiate Task Force's September report recommending the establishment of two pilot safe consumption sites to combat potential drug overdoses and opioid use. Mayor Ed Murray has already stated his support for such sites and, alongside other county officials, is expected to announce soon whether and how such sites will become reality.
Many of the die-in protestors believe support from health care workers will bring legitimacy to safe consumption sites and will emphasize the evidence showing safe drug sites in other countries are successful. Mandy Sladky, a 29-year-old Seattle University nursing student, participated in the die-in and agrees. "We support it for our patients because we care about them but we also support it for our communities where we want to reduce potential harm," she says.
Sanders echoed Sladky, saying the die-in showed the public that health professionals are invested in this solution.
"In this country we have decided that drug use is a criminal justice issue and we’ve criminalized it but many of us in the health community believe that drug use is a public health issue," Sanders says. "Safe consumption sites are an example of a specific model of a public health practice."
According to Sanders, the stigma around safe consumption spaces largely comes from people who aren’t familiar with the concept of harm reduction as a public health approach. While many assume safe sites enable drug use, Sanders notes that research shows the rates of drug use near safe consumption sites have not actually increased due to the presence of these facilities.
"A lot of the people in this coalition have been connected to safe consumption sites through personal experiences and experiences that they have had while on the job," she says. "They have seen first hand how their clients and patients would really benefit from a safe consumption space."
Still opponents, like Republican state senator Mark Miloscia (R-30, Federal Way), think this permissive approach will lead to more drug use.
But Kelly notes that people who want to try drugs for the first time or continue using illicit drugs don't require access to clean needles and a safe space to inject; that's not the reality of drug use, he says.
Instead, Kelly encourages opponents to look where the medical community has been successful in a similar public health issue. For instance, how the U.S. successfully curbed the use of tobacco products. "We did that not by threatening people with jail or threatening to take away their civil liberties, but we did it by giving them factual information about the dangers of smoking, access to mental healthcare and pharmaceutical interventions, and doing so in an environment that was not stigmatized," Kelly says. "I don’t think there’s any reason why we cannot replicate that success with illicit drug use."