Kirkland resident Michael Roberts holds a photo of his 19-year-old daughter Amber who died of a heroin overdose in June 2015. Roberts urged the Issaquah City Council to consider safe injection sites during the Sept. 5 meeting. File photo

Issaquah Council considers safe injection sites after grieving parents’ comments

The conversation about safe injection sites in King County made an appearance at the Issaquah City Council meeting on Sept. 5.

And it was a conversation that brought out strong emotions.

The initiative to ban injection sites will be on the February 2018 special election ballot. Originally on the council’s agenda was a bill to oppose community health engagement locations in the city of Issaquah, but the council members unanimously agreed that a longer look needed to be taken at the complex topic.

A safe injection site is a place where users of illicit drugs can access sterile needles so as to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS and other diseases that can be contracted through the use of unclean syringes. People with addictions can inject drugs such as heroin in a supervised environment where they have access to medical services should an emergency occur, as well as information about treatment and recovery.

Safe injection sites can be found around the world in countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Spain, Canada and Australia. The first Canadian facility opened up in 2003 just across the border from Washington state in Vancouver, British Columbia.

If the February initiative fails and safe injection sites are opened up in King County, they will be the first of their kind in the U.S.

Other cities in the area, such as Bellevue, Auburn and Federal Way, have taken action to ban injection sites in their city limits.

During the meeting’s public comment period, community members sent a strong message to spend a little more time on the issue.

Jerry Blackburn, who serves as chair of the Issaquah Schools Foundation Healthy Youth Initiative’s Influence the Choice — Drug Prevention Alliance for Youth, thanked the council for spending time on the topic, naming it “a difficult and complex conversation that needs to be had among the council and more specifically, the Human Services Commission.”

Mark Cook, an attorney with the Seattle branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, called injection sites a “public health intervention for people with substance use disorders that provide medical treatment and services, and a variety of other linkages to care.”

He pointed out that there are over 100 such sites around the world and that there has never been a reported overdose death at any of the sites. Cook also noted that the high rate of overdose deaths in Vancouver, B.C., a frequent topic in the news this year, is due to the synthetic material of fentanol the heroin is being laced with, rather than due to the city’s safe injection site.

Elizabeth Maupin, director of the Issaquah Sammamish Interfaith Coalition and member of the Issaquah Human Services Commission, said that while living in Vancouver, she regularly volunteered just blocks from the city’s safe injection site.

“I never saw needles scattered on the ground … It wasn’t a danger to that community, it was actually a great help,” she said.

Some of the speakers, barely able to speak through tears, testified to their families’ experiences with heroin.

Michael Roberts of Kirkland lost his 19-year-old daughter Amber Roberts to a heroin overdose in June 2015. Amber overdosed in her bedroom at her mother’s house in Snoqualmie.

“Prevention doesn’t always work, treatment isn’t always available and even when it is, people aren’t always ready to accept it,” Michael Roberts said, choking back sobs. “So we need more and better prevention. Yes, we need treatment on demand, and yes, we need the shells for everything in between.”

According to a June 2016 article in the Kirkland Reporter, Michael Roberts founded Amber’s H.O.P.E., which stands for Heroin and Opiate Prevention and Education, to keep other parents from undergoing the pain he feels every day.

“When prevention fails, treatment won’t yet work; we need a bridge to safety,” Michael Roberts said.

Marlys McConnell also knows the devastation of losing a child to a heroin addiction. Wearing a button with a photo of her son Andrew McConnell, who died at age 27 of an overdose in January 2015 in his New York City apartment, the mother pleaded with the council to support safe injection sites.

“His girlfriend has told me she never saw needles and I wonder now if he was reusing needles … risking disease and infection,” Marlis McConnell said, her voice trembling.

Barb de Michelle said that in her former position as director of ISF’s Healthy Youth Initiative, “I talked to several parents who were desperately seeking help for young people who were addicted to heroin.”

“We need to be open to the idea of having a community health engagement location here in Issaquah because we are a crossroads, easily accessible to people throughout the region,” she said. “It would, I’m sure, help to save many, many lives.”

Cook emphasized that the injection sites are not a place where heroin is legalized.

“The goals are to reduce overdose deaths, to stop the spread of disease, to get people into treatment and recovery and keep them alive long enough until they’re ready, and finally, to improve public safety,” Cook stated.

“I wish [Andrew] had had access to a safe consumption space. A place where you aren’t a ‘junkie’… and a place to get harm-reduction supplies, a place where you learn how to avoid contracting disease and infection,” Marlys McConnell said.

She continued, “I believe Andrew would’ve used a safe consumption space if one had been available to him. I truly believe it would have saved his life.”

Though it was after 1:30 a.m. when the council got to the safe injection sites agenda bill, council members were still adament about giving the topic its due attention.

Councilmember Paul Winterstein said that he was very glad the agenda bill had been moved off of the consent calendar and had become an item of discussion under regular business.

“When I saw this in the packet, I thought, ‘Wait, wait wait; we have to have a conversation,’” Winterstein said.

“My sense is that our community of Issaquah can create space to have a conversation, to get better educated, to learn,” Winterstein said, before proposing an amendment to send the bill to the Human Services Commission for further review and analysis ahead of coming back to the council.

Councilmember Tola Marts added an amendment to have the agenda bill go to the Council Services and Safety Committee after the Human Services Commission.

The other council members agreed with the decision to give a longer look to the bill, and the amendment passed unanimously.

“I think there’s a lot that could be learned in this area,” Councilmember Mariah Bettise said.

“This is an emotional and very complicated issue, and to cut off conversation really bothered me,” Councilmember Bill Ramos said.

Marts said that he “hate[s] heroin,” is extremely afraid of it as a parent, and has been “skeptical” of the idea of injection sites, but firmly stated that he will “keep an open mind” for the Human Services Commission.

“I will be eager to see some data … this is not something to fool around with lightly,” Marts said.

“This could be one way to save lives,” Winterstein said.

Councilmember Eileen Barber was not present for the vote.