Seattle taxpayer-funded program's mission includes 'using drugs safely'

As Seattle is expected to receive millions of dollars in a nationwide opioid settlement amid record-level drug overdose deaths in the city, some council members are questioning the existing use of taxpayer dollars to subsidize drug use and its effectiveness in reducing substance addiction.

However, statements made by representatives of the organizations partnering with the city at a recent Public Safety & Human Services Committee meeting indicated that one of their primary objectives is to ensure users utilize drugs safely.

"I know it can be a little controversial, but one of the key tenets of harm reduction that I see is we want to be able to facilitate and champion autonomy of people who use drugs," Hepatitis Education Project Director of Programs Amber Tejada said at the May 23 meeting.

Harm reduction treatment refers to giving drug addicts "safe" equipment such as pipes and inspecting the content of drugs being used. As part of the city-funded program, 20,000 "harm-reduction kits" have been distributed through Public Health Seattle-King County and other city partners.

However, Councilmember Sara Nelson noted that a recent survey done by groups of drug users in the city found that many of them expressed a desire to get sober.

"Does Public Health agree that it has a responsibility to change behavior…in order to help them address their addiction long-term," she asked. "Do you feel as though it's important to help people change their use patterns in a way so they can go to abstinence-based recovery?

"[I'm] wanting to see more in the way of what is beyond the pre-contemplation treatment," she added. "When pipes are being distributed, I would like to know what is the harm that is being reduced by the distribution of supplies that simply help people use drugs. How do you measure the effectiveness of that public investment?"

Public Health Seattle-King County Strategic Advisor Brad Feingold replied that "we want to be able to help people wherever they're at, further the goals that they have. So, if somebody comes in and says 'I want to gain abstinence in my life,' we absolutely want to help that person find that trajectory to get abstinence. If somebody comes in and says 'you know, I just don't want to die,' we really want to be able to respect and provide whatever services are necessary."

He added that the harm reduction provides opportunities to "bring them in for service" and have them connected with case managers. "Passing out smoking supplies have really proven an effective tool for engaging people in other types of service."

Tejada said that the measure of success is determined by what goals the drug user has. "There are folks who don't want to stop using drugs. Abstinence is not something by which they measure their success in life. Abstinence is great if that something that you have planned for you, but sometimes people are just going to use drugs and it's not going to lead to abstinence. I think our mission…is to show that people can use drugs safely. We can help folks get access to resources.. But, ultimately, autonomy is key."

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